On any given day in Manhattan, be it a humid 90-degree afternoon or midnight in the dead of a cold winter, a long line of people can be seen winding down the sidewalk at West 53rd Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown. They’re not waiting to get their hands on rainbow bagels or the newest iPhone—instead, they’re lining up for foil platters heaped to the brim with falafel, chicken and orange rice from the Halal Guys.
The food cart’s tagline is plastered in bright blue type: “We are different.” And it’s a slogan that certainly rings true. An order usually consists of chopped up chicken and beef, smothered in a creamy tangy white sauce with a generous splash of the legendary hot red sauce (it’s legitimately spicy, too, as in fanning-your-tongue-in-futility spicy). Underneath, there’s neon orange rice—a staple of the Halal Guy experience—and a handful of lettuce and diced tomatoes.
There’s a certain romanticism to street food, efficiently slopped onto an aluminum container, eaten hot and fast as you sit outside by the fountain statue outside the Calyon Building. The Halal Guys know this—and it’s why, ever since the brand announced that they would begin franchising, they’ve created nothing short of a feeding frenzy in every city their food touches.
The Halal Guys was started 20 years ago when four friends from Egypt launched a cart selling hot dogs. But when they noticed that the sizable fleet of Muslim cab drivers were looking for a place to buy halal foods in Manhattan, which adhere to the dietary practices required by Islamic Law, they saw how large the demand was, and yet, how hard it was to find halal food in the city. So, they decided to revamp their menu and started serving chicken, gyros and falafel from a cart. And with that, they were officially dubbed “The Halal Guys.”
Their idea quickly became a hit. It wasn’t long until lines started to form every single day at the corner of West 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan—the intersection where the Halal Guys cart made its claim to fame. Office workers, taxi drivers, club-goers, tourists, construction workers and police officers couldn’t seem to get enough.
By 2014, nearly three decades after the Halal Guys was founded, owners Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed decided to look into franchising. Today, the brand has 35 storefronts—most of which opened in just the last two years. And with hundreds more locations in the works, it’s clear that the Halal Guys are just getting started.
Much of the brand’s explosive success can be attributed to the vision of Mike Speck, the chief operating officer. Having joined the brand back in 2015 after serving as the vice president for Qdoba Mexican Grill, his goal from day one has been simple—to build on the incredible legacy of the Halal Guys in a strong and sustainable way.
“I remember the day two years ago when I was sitting in a room with the founders of the Halal Guys. I learned about their background and the incredible brand they had built. They very humbly said to me, ‘We want to grow, but we’re not sure how.’ That excited me—to have this incredible opportunity to be a part of this legacy brand and to help them put the right pieces in place,” Speck said. “The success of the Halal Guys is the result of three men who worked in sunshine, rain and snow on the corner out of their cart. They built this incredible business out of unparalleled hospitality. That’s what kept the founders out at their carts until 5:30 a.m., and it’s what brought them back immediately after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 so they could provide for first responders. I wanted to find a way to bring the excitement and energy found at the original location in New York to storefronts throughout the world.”
To successfully impart that vibe, it started with engaging the right people—passionate franchisees who are ardent believers in the brand. For Speck, maintaining a local connection for every new location was paramount. This meant partnering with owners who were active members of their community.
“I love talking to franchisees about the fact that the Halal Guys restaurant they’ve opened is a local place—they’re contributing to their communities and giving guests something to be excited about,” Speck added. “Every single location is owned and operated by a local person. Not someone out of New York. It was important to me—and our owners—that the community know the person behind the restaurant. That human element is what garnered the Halal Guy such a loyal following in New York, and it’s what will continue to drive the brand forward.”
That loyal following is something Speck and the entire brand are proud of. Andrew Eck, the director of marketing for the Halal Guys, recalls the day they debuted one of the first franchise locations in Chicago. In the days leading up to the grand opening, hundreds of people RSVP’d to an invite that was circulating on Facebook. As the numbers skyrocketed, Eck questioned what would happen if every single one of those people actually showed up—and they did. They had a line around the block that day. It was a strong and reaffirming indicator of the good things that were to come.
“Experiencing that kind of overwhelming turnout was a big moment for us. That’s when we knew we had something very special, and we realized how special the Halal Guys was to our guests, too,” Eck said. “For years, customers were asking the Halal Guys to expand their business and come to cities all over the globe. Thanks to our strong leadership, our dedicated franchisees and a prototype that puts hospitality first, we’ve been able to give our massively loyal fan base exactly what they want.”
And yet, even with the growing demand for the Halal Guys around the world, Speck says that the most important thing now is to continue building the brand the right way—that means putting less of an emphasis on numbers and milestones, and instead focus on the people they have. That’s because Speck believes just about any brand can be physically built. But it takes truly engaged and dedicated leaders to make it work. And that’s exactly what the Halal Guys has.
“We don’t have an annual forecast of growth numbers we want to hit. We want to make sure we do the best we can with the people we have. It’s about rewarding those who are with us now—from our franchisees to the customer,” Speck said. “Those relationships matter most. Treat people well and success will follow.”