The Halal Guys: Cashing In on Street Cred

June 13, 2014

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.

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.

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.

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?

Muslim Americans lead in social entrepreneurship

“Social entrepreneurship” has become a buzzword in the international development community and in activist culture in the United States and beyond.

It is a matter of pride for me, a Muslim American blogger, to highlight two models of social entrepreneurship – solving a social problem through innovative solutions – that have received national attention in the U.S. and are the brainchildren of Muslim Americans. Their innovation has created new spaces for community engagement that can help expand ideas of what it means to be a community activist.

Meet two social entrepreneurial models that connect non-Muslim and Muslim Americans, and others: Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. and the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago. They are not ventures geared toward interfaith understanding. Instead, they are focused on community building – but in doing so they have created spaces where people of different faiths and backgrounds can interact.

As American leaders encourage other countries’ budding entrepreneurs to take ownership of problems within their communities, it is important to highlight what is already happening in the United States.

Local leaders in other American cities, such as Denver and New York, have approached these Muslim Americans and asked them to expand their operations and open a Busboys and Poets or IMAN there. If they do so, they will be sharing more than just the spirit of American activism, but also a dynamic, inclusive Muslim approach to activism.

Immigrant supermarket chain

Rotterdam entrepreneur Kees van Vuuren is starting a chain of immigrant supermarkets, and hopes to eventually open 150-200 shops, especially in those areas that have witnessed the disappearance of small grocery shops in the past decade. Van Vuuren hopes that the shops, under the name Waikiki, will improve the atmosphere in unsafe neighborhoods and encourage integration, by being employed by many young immigrants seeking franchises, and encouraging entrepreneurship in localized neighborhoods. Waikiki shops will offer products of Lebanese, Polish, Russian, Surinamese, Czech, Turkish, and Dutch origins, and also offer halal or Islamically permissible goods.