Back in 1990, Egyptian immigrants Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed decided to try their luck at a quintessential New York venture—they opened a hot dog cart.
But what they quickly learned was that the city didn’t need more hot dogs. Instead, Muslim cab drivers were urging them to serve halal foods, which adhere to the dietary practices required by Islamic law. Seeing how large the market was, and yet how hard it was to find halal food in the city, the partners revamped their menu and became The Halal Guys, serving chicken, gyros and falafel from a cart at 53rd Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
With the help of chatty cabbies, word of the cart spread, and soon The Halal Guys added more locations. But it wasn’t just the cab drivers who flocked to get their fill of Middle Eastern-style street fare: Office workers, tourists and the bar crowd regularly lined up at the halal carts, which became NYC landmarks in their own right. And though dozens, if not hundreds, of competitors have opened over the past two decades, The Halal Guys still have lines around the block every day. General manager Hesham Hegazy says that’s because the focus is on food quality, customer service and, above all else, taste.
Now, after 25 years in business, The Halal Guys are getting into franchising—but instead of selling street carts, the company is taking its operations indoors. So far there are deals to open more than 175 units in Southern California, Houston, the Philippines and other locations.
We asked Hegazy to tell us how The Halal Guys plan to become the guys next door.
Why franchise now, after more than 20 years in business?
Franchising is not a decision we came to overnight. Our customers always asked us why we didn’t bring The Halal Guys to their cities. We were always happy to hear this and said that when the time comes, we will do that. In the past five or 10 years, it started to feel like the right time. Almost 95 percent of our customers are non-Muslims, and we consider our food American halal food. It’s got its own flavor profile, so we want to bring that to the rest of the country.
What makes your food different from your competitors’?
Our menu is kind of a mix of different Middle Eastern ethnicities. But the way we season it and serve it is what makes it different from any other halal food—especially our famous white sauce. There was an article in The New York Times about us, and the headline read, “It’s all about the sauce.”
New York is one thing, but does the rest of the country want halal food?
After we announced we were franchising, we attended a franchise show and were surprised to find out how well-known our brand is nationally and internationally. We signed two of our major multi-unit franchisees on the spot. Our goal was to open 100 stores, but we exceeded that plan in no time. We’ve signed a dozen multi-unit deals totaling more than 175 stores.
Do you think the brick-and-mortar restaurants will be as successful as your carts?
We already have two corporate stores in New York, and they are both doing great. We built them before deciding to move forward with the franchise. They sell the same things as the carts, but we’ve brought in the best technology and used the same color scheme as the cart. We designed them to make sure the customer who walks in has the same feeling they do at the street cart but also has a place to sit down and be comfortable and enjoy the same quality food.
So, what’s the recipe for the white sauce?