The Al Islami Foods story began in 1970 with one small grocery shop, known as the Dubai Co-operative Society, at Port Saeed in Deira. The shop also sold razors and laundry products but its founder, Haj Sayeed Lootah, had a bigger vision for it.
He wanted to open a chain of new stores and brought in two people from Egypt to help him achieve that goal: Kamel El-Adil and Hamid Al Bawadi. They set about implementing Mr Lootah’s plan, and each store they opened was a little more ambitious than the last. The second shop, in Karama, was closer to a modern supermarket, and it was followed by new stores in Khalid bin Waleed Road, Defense Roundabout and Satwa. The breakthrough came in 1979 when they opened a hypermarket in Mirdif, which would be the model for all future outlets.
This was followed in 1980 by two innovations: the opening in Rigga Road of the first-ever ladies-only store, and the opening of specialist butchers’ shops.
In 1981, the company began a gradual move from retailing into food distribution. This was triggered by a newspaper story about so-called halal food distributors whose food was not halal at all. Mr Lootah’s response was a rigorous inspection programme to ensure that all his suppliers were adhering to strict halal principles.
Mr Badawi travelled all over Europe and couldn’t find a single supplier who would guarantee his products were 100% halal all the time. He eventually found one company in Denmark who was prepared to guarantee it, but the owner was concerned that the process was slow and time-consuming and would make his end product too expensive.
The solution was to send a number of skilled men who could work very quickly from Dubai to Denmark. The team from Dubai came up with several innovations to make the process faster and even more hygienic. At the same time, the management team recognised the need to develop a brand that people could trust to be fully compliant with Islamic principles, and so 1981 also saw the birth of the brand name Co-op Islami.
The first shipment of 30 tons of 100% halal chicken left Esbjerg for Dubai in September 1981. With a safe and reliable source of halal chicken secured, the company started the search for other halal meats. That search took them to Australia and later to Brazil, and soon halal lamb, veal and beef were being imported to the UAE. The company became the first to import frozen meat into the UAE by air.
Dubai Co-operative Society opened its first food processing plant in Jebel Ali in 1981 and started to extend its range to offer more than just fresh meat. Now there were also burgers, frankfurters, luncheon meat, feta cheese, soups, jellies, jams and other cheeses.
This expansion brought its own challenges. Animal rennet is used in the production of feta cheese but its halal credentials can’t be guaranteed, so the company solved the problem by developing microbial rennet. Jam and jelly call for the use of gelatin, which presents a similar problem, so the company introduced pectin and carrageen as acceptable alternatives.
Dubai Co-operative Society opened a larger food processing plant to meet demand in 1991, also in Jebel Ali. The business continued to grow, and in 2006 the company was rebranded as Al Islami Foods to improve its market positioning. Under the new brand, it started exporting products to Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Exports to the Seychelles and Libya began in 2009, followed by the Maldives in 2014 and Mauritius in 2015.
Today, Al Islami Foods is the leading halal food company in the UAE and one of the biggest food distributors in the region. Its range spans more than 100 frozen and speciality products. It employs 350 people at its operations in the UAE, Brazil, Kuwait and India.