THE END OF THE LINE
Entrepreneur|Startups Spring 2021
COVID-19 has forced the restaurant industry to rethink everything. No brand has seen a more dramatic shift than The Halal Guys, a food cart turned franchise where long lines and busy stores were part of the appeal. So how do you transform a hot spot into a safe, reliable meal?
CLINT CARTER

Patrick Mock used to fly across the country with takeout containers of chicken and gyro. “I’d smell up the whole cabin just so I could bring some platters back for my friends and family in California,” he says.

He was picking up those platters at The Halal Guys, a food cart on the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Mock ate there regularly when he lived in New York and worked as a management consultant. Then he moved to California, and the cart became a rare treat. Whenever he was back in town, he’d visit the cart, put in a big order, and stuff it all into a carry-on bag before heading to the airport.

Mock’s friends, many of whom he had personally introduced to the brand, knew he was a Halal Guys devotee. So in 2014, when news broke that the business was franchising, they started texting him messages of encouragement. “I was in a meeting, and I started getting pinged on my phone,” he says. “It had never even crossed my mind to do a franchise.”

But The Halal Guys wasn’t a typical company, and it wouldn’t be a typical franchise. To start, Mock was hardly the only person obsessed with it. The cart had become a beacon of culinary indulgence for street-cultured travelers and locals. It was dependable— closing only twice in its 30-year history—and wildly popular, especially at night, when people were spilling out of bars and clubs. The line was regularly down the block.

Mock saw the business opportunity, and not just because he was a fan. The food was delicious, replicable, and unlike anything else in the country. He figured The Halal Guys could do for halal food what Panda Express did for Chinese food, or Chipotle did for Mexican food. So a week later, he got on a plane to New York to meet with the brand—and then signed a multi-unit deal for 20 stores in Northern California. His first one opened on a sweltering summer day in 2016.

Even as The Halal Guys transitioned from a food cart into a franchise, it managed to maintain its hype. The industry publication Restaurant Business ranked it as the fastest- growing small concept in the country, and units started appearing around the U.S. as well as internationally, in cities like Toronto, Jakarta, and Seoul. Long lines, like the ones in Manhattan, were a regular feature—so much so that when a franchisee launched a Halal Guys Instagram channel in 2015, it posted a photo of a seemingly endless stretch of people at the cart. The caption read, “Tag your friends who have waited in this line for some delicious chicken and rice!”

That became the strategy: Capture the crowd and recycle the excitement.

But then, trouble. Sales slowed. The buzz died down. A few locations were forced to close. And just as The Halal Guys was fixing the problem, COVID-19 came along and forced it to reconsider everything. Because in a time of social distancing, how can you run a brand that’s built on hype and crowds?

The Halal Guys has an answer: It’s going to get a little boring. But that’s a good thing.

THE HALAL GUYS’ origin story could fill a chapter in a book on the American dream. In 1990, three Egyptian immigrants— Mohamed Abouelenein, Abdelbaset Elsayed, and Ahmed Elsaka—ditched their kitchen and cabdriving gigs to run a food cart. At first they sold hot dogs, but soon after, they switched to halal food, which is prepared in accordance with Muslim law.

The partners recognized an underserved audience of Muslim cabbies, and as an homage, they decorated their cart taxicab yellow. But the audience turned out to be bigger than just drivers; it was also the passengers— hundreds of thousands of whom traveled by cab every day in New York City. If you were to ask your driver where to find a quick bite, there’s a decent chance you’d hear about midtown’s best chicken and gyro cart.

The cart was popular for its food, but it grew legendary for its lines, which came to stretch late into the night. Sameer Sarmast first visited the cart in the late ’90s as a teenager. “It wasn’t even called Halal Guys back then,” says Sarmast, now a financial planner. “It was just called the chicken-rice guy, or the platter guy.”

Sarmast was just old enough to drive, and he used his freedom to eat halal. He and his brother would sneak out after curfew for the 25-minute drive from their home in New Jersey. They’d put their parents’ car in neutral, roll it down the driveway, and start the engine once they were out of earshot.

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