There was a time in New York City when a quick meal from an authentic halal cart was hard to come by. That all changed when three Egyptian immigrants turned a flailing hot dog cart into what we now know as The Halal Guys, a restaurant chain with franchises all over the world, a slick mobile app, and an approach to delivery that’s making it a leader in that space.
While “street meat” is practically ubiquitous in the city today, it was an untapped market when founders Abdelbaset Elsayed, Ahmed Elsaka, and Mohammed Abouelenein opened a hot dog stand about 30 years ago. The dogs didn’t do so hot, but what these three discovered in the process was a huge demand from Muslim taxi drivers for fast, good halal food—and an unmet demand at that. So rather than continue the struggle for hot dogs, they grabbed at opportunity and transformed the cart into a halal stand in 1990.
“It was the first cart in New York City to ever offer halal food,” says Terry Wilson, the company’s Director of Operations, over the phone. “From there, a lot of unique things happened.”
One of those was the name of the business. According to Wilson, when one guest asked about this, the founders replied they didn’t have a name. “Sure you do. You guys are The Halal Guys,” the guest countered.
With a name in hand and bright yellow employee shirts inspired by the color of NYC taxi cabs, The Halal Guys went on to expand their menu as well as the number of carts around the city. “We were just carts for 20 years or so,” Wilson explains. The company finally launched a franchise program in 2014, after negotiating a deal with franchise-development company Fransmart. As of today, 77 locations stretch from NYC to Costa Mesa, not to mention South Korea, the Philippines, and Indonesia. According to Wilson, the company just started construction in the UK, where they plan to have 20 units.
The expansion is about more than adding more brick and mortar, however. As any competitive restaurant should of late, The Halal Guys put a lot of effort into developing their mobile and delivery strategy. They launched their mobile app in 2017. The iOS- and Android-compatible app is powered by Olo, and has, in Wilson’s words, “really done well in terms of building brand awareness.” It also sees check averages that are roughly 40 percent higher than those in physical stores.
As for delivery, that’s a huge part of Wilson’s job. He gives a litany of factors involved in any solid delivery strategy: monitoring each individual delivery platform (e.g., Grubhub vs. DoorDash); negotiating national contracts with these services, to push down fees; integrating services with the POS system; ensuring food arrives on and time and at the right temperature; and, of course, making physical space for all those delivery orders and the drivers collecting them.
With delivery accounting for an average of 10 percent of all The Halal Guys’ orders (the actual number varies by location), the company has had to make some changes in the way they handle business operations across their stores. That includes a separate delivery area inside the store, one that has its own POS and a landing area where food is packaged and handed over to the drivers.
But it’s how The Halal guys interact with those drivers that sets it apart from many other chains when it comes to delivery. When I ask how The Halal Guys ensure quality across the delivery supply chain, even when the food leaves the restaurant’s control and is at the mercy of said driver, tech is not the first thing Wilson points out. Instead, he highlights the relationships the company builds with the vendors and the individual drivers.
“In some of our units, we do such high volumes of delivery that we do know the drivers,” he explains. “That goes a long way in building the relationship.”
And while delivery is an important part of most restaurant strategies today, Wilson seemingly views it as one part of a much larger whole, where offering high-quality food (and sauces!) on a routine basis is top priority. He calls it the “consistency of always being there,” adding that one of the main drivers behind the business is “29 years of being consistent, of having very high standards.”
“If we can physically be there, we will,” he adds. That’s as true for staying open during a hurricane to continuing to offer food via the humble food cart, in addition to all the newer services. In a restaurant business that changes every week, and where today’s online strategy could turn into tomorrow’s obsolete tech, that’s probably the most important part of the equation for any restaurant to get right.