It is perhaps the most common notion of the American dream: start out doing something that is dear to your own heart, work hard, and you will succeed. For the Egyptians who moved to America and started with a hot dog cart in busy Manhattan, Mohamed Abouelenein and Abdelbaset Elsayed, this is exactly what happened. The decision to move away from the traditional American fare of hot dogs and move closer to their own cultural roots with a halal cart, instead turned out to be the most important decision of all. In no time, lines formed around the corners and down the street for these food carts until they close at four in the morning. With the first of their brick and mortar stores opened last year, they are looking to franchise and even go international.
It started with a single hot dog cart in 1990. Mohamed Abouelenein was a veterinarian, and Abedlbaset Elsayed was a business student when they emigrated from Egypt with dreams of owning their own business. When they first started, they worked a variety of odd jobs, doing everything from working in kitchens to driving cabs. Eventually though, they saved up enough money to start their very first cart in New York City. They began selling hot dogs – the most popular food cart fare of the time – on the bustling corner of 6th Avenue and 53rd St. They now refer to this as their original location.
After serving hot dogs for a while, the pair realized that Muslim cabbies were aching for a tasty, halal-certified bite in Midtown Manhattan, where they didn’t have to leave the car. This is where the story takes off. What was then just one cart, is now seven carts at this location alone. Lines can last for up to two hours long, where hundreds upon hundreds of people will be waiting in the, although busy, fast-moving lines.
The menu is simple: chicken or gyro meat served over rice. You can also get a combination of both for those who can’t decide. There is a creamy white sauce – the origins of which have baffled many – and a spicy hot sauce that packs a powerful punch. All for seven bucks (about KD 2). That’s it. Nothing flashy. So what is it about this food that is getting people to line up for as long as two hours at a time until 4am just to try it?
Your NY-based bazaar correspondent made a trek down to the original location to find out why! I was skeptical at first: I was underwhelmed by the number of options on the menu, I hate waiting in lines, and hated the prospect of being in midtown at either 4am or even during regular business hours, when you can barely walk down the street due to so many people. But I must say, I stand corrected. It was absolutely delicious. And, given recent business announcements, you may not have to wait too long to try for yourself.
I later trekked to their first brick and mortar location in the East Village. The first thing you notice is that they have offerings that the carts do not, including a juice and smoothie bar, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, Mediterranean salads and yogurt, as well as falafels freshly made, instead of merely being reheated from the carts.
The Halal Guys have created a buzz after announcing stage one of their franchising deal out of 200 new units in development over the next year. Amongst the already crowded landscape of New York eateries, The Halal Guys consistently ranks in the Top Ten Most Yelped Businesses in New York City, and even the entire U.S. overall (Yelp is a crowdsourced food review website and app). Even Reebok has recently launched a specialty sneaker inspired by this now iconic brand. Most recently, they hired American restaurant industry veteran Mike Speck as their new COO. Speck’s specialty is taking restaurant brands into growth mode, which he most recently did by adding more than 150 new units to fast casual Mexican brand Qdoba. With plans to come into the Gulf region soon, we will hopefully see them locally!
If you are in NYC this summer, visit their original cart at the corner of 6th Avenue and 53rd St. in Manhattan, New York, and stay tuned for their expansion into the Gulf region by following them on Facebook: The Halal Guys.