The Halal Guys
Some empires are managed from a distance: in corner offices, from cellphones on beaches, under palm fronds while being fanned by servants.
Hesham Hegazy, the general manager of the Midtown street-food empire the Halal Guys, prefers sitting by a window at a Starbucks at West 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, where night after night he can observe his street-cart workers as they serve platter after platter of chicken and rice for ever-replenishing lines of customers.
One recent evening, Mr. Hegazy, 54, wearing a traditional kufi, sat with a coffee at one of his regular tables, with two Halal Guys carts within sight across the way. He will sometimes sit there late into the night. “To watch the guys,” he said, gesturing to the scene.
Mr. Hegazy manages one of the longest-running and best-known food-cart businesses in New York City with a style best described as old-fashioned. He receives email but almost never responds to it, preferring to conduct business over the phone or in person at the coffee shop.
To proudly illustrate a story about the Halal Guys being the first halal cart to secure a trademark, he made a fast phone call in Arabic; moments later, a boyish-looking young man appeared at the table with a takeout bag bearing the logo as proof.
Before Mr. Hegazy arrives in the evenings, cart workers have been known to set out cones to secure him a parking spot on Sixth Avenue. The Halal Guys know how to work the street.
But things are about to change for the Guys. More than a decade after three Egyptian men switched from selling hot dogs from their Midtown cart to serving halal food to Muslim cabdrivers, the Halal Guys are about to become a fast-food chain. The company — founded by Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed — signed a deal with Fransmart, the restaurant franchise consulting firm that took Five Guys Burgers and Fries from four locations in Northern Virginia and helped turn it into a chain with more than 1,200 stores and more than $1 billion in sales last year. Qdoba, a Mexican food chain, is Fransmart’s other success story.
Within a year Fransmart hopes to open Halal Guys outlets in Los Angeles, along the East Coast, across Canada and in the Middle East. The five-year plan is for 100 locations, as well as a presence in Europe.
“It’s going to be the Chipotle of Middle Eastern food,” Dan Rowe, Fransmart’s chief executive, said. Only a few franchise-industry insiders know of the deal — the news will be formally announced at the International Franchise Expo starting June 19 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan — but Mr. Rowe said the interest so far had been tremendous. “A lot of people want this brand,” he said. But how will a brand so intrinsically tied to the streets of New York translate into a fast-food chain found in strip malls?
The other day, a customer eating lunch from the Halal Guys offered his opinion on the news. Anthony Greco, 26, who works in finance, was sitting on a sun-baked granite bench near the Museum of Modern Art devouring a platter. He said he had “no doubt” the franchise would be successful. “I think it is a staple of New York, so it’s going to be different,” he said. “Me and my boys come in from Jersey, through the tunnel, on nights just to eat it.”
But Mr. Greco conceded that part of the appeal was the atmosphere. “It will lose something,” he said. “You look forward to eating it on the street.”
An early glimpse at what a Halal Guys franchise might look like will come next month when the first shop opens on 14th Street, just off Second Avenue. A second location is planned to open near Columbia University’s campus in the fall. Though these restaurants are technically not franchises (the Fransmart contract was signed after the company decided to expand from the carts), their design and their menus could provide the template for future locations.
The 14th Street shop has a sign with the familiar Halal Guys yellow (a nod to taxi cabs). The gyro and chicken dishes from the trucks will be on the menu, as well as new healthier options and Middle Eastern desserts. In an email, Mr. Rowe said that the portions might be larger and slightly more expensive — a platter at the truck costs $6 — and that the shops will be designed for “speed like the carts.”
But the food seems almost secondary to the brand’s potential. “What charges me up is we will be the first and the biggest Middle Eastern street-food concept,” Mr. Rowe said.
“Everyone has heard of them,” he added. “They’ve got the street cred. It’s got everything going for it.”
Mr. Rowe pursued the Halal Guys aggressively — he described the franchise as a “category killer” — eventually taking the train up from Washington for discussions. He met Mr. Hegazy at the Starbucks. Negotiations took more than a year.
When asked if he was concerned that the company’s name or its associations with Muslim culture might not play as well in certain parts of the country (halal food is prepared in accordance with Islamic law), Mr. Rowe said it never affected his confidence. He could easily envision a plan that took Halal Guys franchises from Miami through Florida, radiating from Boston and Chicago into the suburbs. “By the time we’re in Chattanooga,” he said, “there will be so much good buzz, they will be excited to try it.”
Today, you can find carts serving pork-and-chive dumplings, lobster rolls and fat-marbled pastrami sandwiches on rye. But the Midtown of the early ’90s as described by the original Halal Guys was a barren landscape for street food, aside from hot dog carts.
The owners had been approached in the past with franchising opportunities, but Mr. Elsayed said that now felt like the right time, adding that they were comfortable with Mr. Rowe. “People from all over the world come here and they wonder what’s going on,” he said in his strongly accented English. “Why you guys so busy? What’s so good about it? And that makes us wonder, it’s about time to franchise.” He also emphasized that the carts would remain.
How much money the Halal Guys makes is something of a mystery and has been a source of speculation among food bloggers. “We sell a lot” is the most definitive answer Mr. Hegazy will offer. “I never say.”
“We are a street cart; they watch us like this,” he said of the Internal Revenue Service, making the “I’ve got my eye on you” gesture with his fingers.
Zach Brooks, the founder of Midtownlunch.com, a popular blog that has chronicled the city’s street-food scene since 2006, has followed the Halal Guys for years. “Those carts probably pull in a couple hundred grand a year,” he said. “But I don’t want to sound like an idiot. They could be making a million bucks.”
As to why the brand has become so strong, appearing on the to-do lists of tourists and standing above countless imitators, that, too, is something of a mystery. Maybe, Mr. Brooks suggested, the Halal Guys used better meat? Maybe it was the white sauce that is slathered over everything? Maybe it’s because people can’t remember a time when they weren’t there?
“It’s the most perfectly crafted platter of street meat there is,” he concluded.
But Mr. Brooks was ambivalent about the franchise news. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “In a lot of ways you can’t take street meat off the streets.”
Originally published on http://www.nytimes.com