PARIS (Reuters) - A French fast food chain announced on Tuesday it would almost triple its line of halal hamburger restaurants because sales had doubled in a trial that sparked a heated debate about the integration of Muslims.
The Quick chain of 358 restaurants around France said it would boost its halal-only outlets to 22 on Wednesday after the trial in eight areas with a strong Muslim population also saw a doubling of customers and a rise in the amounts they spent.
Quick, which is a challenger to the U.S. hamburger chain McDonald's and runs franchises in seven other countries including Belgium, Russia and Algeria, said the move was purely commercial.
"We're in a very competitive market and we're the challenger," said General Manager Jacques-Edouard Charret, whose company competes against about 1,150 outlets for the U.S.-based McDonald's.
"We are not a philanthropy or a charity," he told a news conference. "Our ambition is to develop Quick's turnover and create jobs. And it's going well."
Asked if the halal-only outlets would separate Muslims from other customers, he said: "To the contrary, this is an opening. It's a restaurant where Muslims, Catholics and Jews can eat the same product without bothering anyone."
Quick came in for criticism earlier this year when its trial, which sold only halal beef and replaced bacon with smoked turkey, hit national headlines. Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said ethnic marketing like this was against French values.
The mayor of a town with a halal Quick threatened a law suit for discrimination against non-Muslims. A far-right leader accused the company of imposing an "Islamic tax" on customers because part of the meat price goes to Muslim clerics who certify it was slaughtered according to Islamic law.
But the growing halal market is now twice as large as that for organic food in France, whose five million Muslims make up Europe's largest Islamic minority. Many French Muslims eat halal and fast at Ramadan even if they do not pray regularly in mosques.
A survey this year estimated the French halal market at 5.5 billion euros ($6.95 billion) annually with growth expected at 20 percent a year as the Muslim middle class expands.
McDonald's in France does not offer halal meat but another U.S. fast food chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken, does.
Quick's restaurants for the six-month trial were located in several large cities around France while most of the new outlets will be in the suburbs around Paris where many Muslims live.
The trial restaurants were chosen because managers noticed they had been selling double the national average of fish sandwiches -- the usual option for observant Muslims if halal meat is not on the menu -- and many fewer bacon burgers.
After the trial, sales of giant halal burgers ran far ahead of the national average while fish sandwich sales dropped to the same level as in non-halal outlets, Quick said. Each outlet also hired about 25 more staff to deal with the higher demand.
Quick said the halal restaurants would still sell beer, as its other outlets do, and offer non-halal hamburgers on demand that are cooked elsewhere and reheated in the restaurant.
Editing by Jon Hemming