In 1990, three Egyptian men opened a hot dog cart on the gritty New York City streets at 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, then switched to selling halal foods aimed at the city’s many Muslim taxi drivers. By 2014 they opened up their first brick and mortar store on East 14th Street.
Ten years later in 2024, these three entrepreneurs had turned the Halal Guys into one of the country’s steadiest growing franchises, despite the fact that most Americans couldn’t tell you what halal food is.
Halal Guys has grown to 114 global locations, with 100 of them based in the U..S. The key to Halal Guys’ growth has been its franchising prowess since 107 shops are franchised with only 7 company-owned. It opened 13 new locations in 2023, with 12 franchised, with about a dozen expected for growth in 2024.
The three founders are: Ahmed Abouelenein, who serves as president, Abdelbaset Elsayed, as vice president, and Ahmed Elsaka, who serves as treasurer.
This gyro, beef, chicken, falafel specialist has struck a chord with many Americans, forming a new category: halal food.
Halal food doesn’t refer to a specific type of food, only that it adheres to following Islamic principles and involves no consumption of pork products or alcoholic beverages.
When they opened their first store, it was self-funded. No SBA loans, no angel investors, all capitalized from the savings the three owners accrued from their cart.
Margaret Carerra, Halal Guys’ chief development officer, who is based in New York City, notes that the owners felt if they could replicate the success of the cart, they could make their restaurant a success. “Operating the cart was 10 times more difficult than the brick-and-mortar store,” she quips.
Halal Guys’s food emphasizes proteins such as chicken, beef and lamb, includes vegetarian items such as falafels, and includes rice and fresh vegetable salad. Other items include beef gyro platters and chicken platters, with rice and hot sauce.
The owners say the franchise model has worked effectively because it supplies “on the ground assistance, strategic guidance and ongoing support throughout the development process.” Carrera adds that management sees the franchisees as “partners. We want to provide them with systems and tech support and everything they need.”
She describes the ideal franchisee as “someone who is passionate about the food and someone involved in the operations.”
Abouelenein said the key to keeping its prices affordable and appealing to a wide audience was “simplicity. We focus on a concise selection of key items such as falafel, chicken and beef gyro over rice and sandwiches.”
Carerra adds that keeping prices low depends on “a lot of negotiation and partnership with vendors,” and yet, as with many restaurant chains, price inflation has made keeping prices down challenging.
By keeping the menu streamlined, it also reduces waste costs. The limited menu enables it to keep the line moving and serve more customers and leads to return customers. Halal Guys therefore walks a “delicate balance between affordability and profitability,” Abouelenein says.
When the Halal Guys debuts in a new city, it undergoes a very intensive approach to getting the word out and appealing to a wide array of new customers. That includes leveraging social media via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter (now called X) and partnering with local influencers. Then it introduces a grand opening highlighted by discounts, free samples and promotions.
It also uses radio ads in some markets and encourages reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google. “Positive reviews from satisfied customers contribute to our online credibility,” says Abouelenein.
Speaking of Yelp, reactions to dining at the Halal Guys in Manhattan was mostly very positive. Tiffany from Orange Country, Calif. felt the portions in New York City were “more generous” than in her home state and “the meats are so much tastier.” She liked the combo platter of well-seasoned chicken and beef with fragrant rice with a creamy white sauce.
Sanchita from Falls Church, Va., liked the generous portions of chicken bowl she was served for around ten dollars. She also noted the speedy service.
Rehnuma from New York City said Halal Guys was her first restaurant meal when she came to New York eight years ago. She found the food “fresh and piping hot,” though she found the chicken a bit bland and dry. But she noted they don’t “scrimp on portion sizes.”
Asked who are Halal Guys’ major competitors, Carerra says that “The way we see it we don’t have any direct competitors that are as large as we are.” Most of the other rivals are mom and pop halal shops. For example, in Greenwich Village, Kebab Express has a very similar menu.
She describes its target audience as “a mix of ethnicities,” kind of like the metropolis of 8.6 million people New York City, where it all started.
In 2024 she expects some of the locations that are five years and older to be remodeled. And she hinted that new items will be introduced to its menu, including chicken shawarma.
The keys to its sustained success, says Carerra, who was raised in New York City, are 1) Quality of its food, 2) How we communicate with our franchisees, particularly listening to what they say, 3) Sustaining the marketing and awareness of our brand, 4) Being as friendly as the owners were when they launched the franchise with their cart.