Twenty-five years ago, three guys from Egypt opened a hot dog cart in New York City. Muslim cabbies urged them to switch to Halal offerings — food permitted under Islamic rules. Otherwise, where does an observant cabbie get a bite on the go? It worked like gangbusters, and not just with Muslims. The Midtown cart drew long lines and became a kind of New York landmark. Now, they’re franchising, with spots opening in Houston, Southern California, Chicago… and Manila.
Even on a cold, rainy December afternoon, New Yorkers, tourists, cops and suits line up at the Halal Guys carts — two, one on each side of 6th Avenue at 53rd Street. On one side of 6th, the upper floors of an office building make a kid of concrete awning, under which a dozen people duck out of the rain to eat from Halal Guys' containers.
One is Santi Diansari , visiting from Indonesia, where she works for IBM. She eats here every time she visits New York. This time, her family is with her. "They’re already asking to eat this," she said. "So, later tonight I’ll come back."
Told that Halal Guys is planning a franchise in Indonesia, her face lights up. "Really?" she asks. "Really? When?"
It may take a little while. Taking a Halal food business national — or global— presents special supply chain challenges.
For instance, with Halal meat, you have to show that the animals involved were treated with respect— raised without crowding, fed well, and slaughtered mercifully while saying God’s name. Ahmed Rehab runs the Chicago Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"The main idea of halal is that it’s done in line with the values that were given to us by the Prophet Muhammad, and that reflect the divine vision for humanity— so, mercy, kindness, efficiency, good use." For Muslims halal food reflects those spiritual values.
For most New York street eaters, halal is a brand that means generous portions of tasty food.
Back on 53rd Street, Alan Sytsma — editor of New York Magazine’s food blog Grub Street— shows off the product. "You see the full spread," he said, taking the cover off a big foil container. "It’s a glorious plate of food."
Food writer Alan Sytsma shows off the original product from a Halal Guys cart on 53rd Street in Manhattan. (Dan Weissmann/Marketplace)
He reveals chopped up chicken and beef, hot from the griddle and smothered in a creamy, tangy white sauce with a generous splash of hot red sauce. A couple slivers of pita are on top.
"Underneath, you've got the neon orange rice— a staple of the Halal Guys experience— and some lettuce on the side that kind of cools it down," he said. "It makes you feel like you’re kind of eating a vegetable for lunch instead of a big plate of meat and rice."
Thanks to an army of Halal Guys imitators, plates like this now seems to be the city’s most common street food, with Halal Guys copycats everywhere.
The copycats can even be seen on 53rd, right by the original. "I mean, you can look across," said Sytsma, pointing. "There’s one right there. Another one right there…"
However, Halal Guys is the original, and it tends to be the one with the longest lines.
And in New York, a line is good advertising.
"One of the first rules of living in New York and being a food lover in New York is that if you see people waiting in a very long line for food, you get in that line," Sytsma said. "Because whatever they’re waiting for is going to be good. New Yorkers are pressed for time, they’re impatient. If they're willing to wait an hour for something, you want to give it a shot."
And that observation— We’re crushing it it in New York— is a key rationale for the company’s expansion plan.
Hesham Hegazy, who is leading that plan as the company's director of brand development, sums it up: "As Sinatra says," he said, paraphrasing, "if you make it in New York, you make it anywhere."
Hegazy joined the business in 2010, to help with operations, and the questions he got from customers got him thinking. "They ask, 'When will you guys be open in my state? When will you guys be open in Paris? When will you guys be open in London?"
To date, he said franchisees have signed up to open 250 locations.
A key question is how well the food will hold up, and Zach Brooks is the perfect person to ask. Founder of a Manhattan-based blog called Midtown Lunch, and a Halal Guys super-fan, Brooks moved to Los Angeles a few years ago. When a franchise opened in Costa Mesa, he drove an hour to get there, then waited in line 45 minutes.
"They have perfectly recreated it," he says. "And the rice— the rice was the thing I was most worried about. And they nailed it."
But food is just one ingredient for success. There’s also branding.
Global terrorists have tried to take over the brand of Islam. Some westerners have bought that story. Could that hurt Halal Guys?
Not likely, says Harlan Loeb, who runs Crisis and Risk communications for Edelman, a big PR firm.
He said his data tell him three things about the Halal Guys customer base, which he says is "millennials, largely":
They love to eat. They can distinguish between delicious food and global terrorism. And they’re loyal.
If trouble brews for Halal Guys, Loeb expects those fans to say: "We’re going to go the extra yard to support them— given the geopolitical environment."
Score one for delicious food.
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