We’re going all in,” says ITICO F+B director Whitney Myrus, one of three managing partners overseeing the UK rollout of The Halal Guys. Four years after the Middle Eastern street food brand first began franchising across the US, Canada and the Far East, the chain has finally arrived on European shores with a prominent site moments from London’s Leicester Square.
The expansion over those four years has been rapid, with more than 450 sites established across six countries. And Myrus plans on maintaining that momentum over here.
“Our aim is to open at least 20 locations in the UK over the next five years,” he says. A second site in Earl’s Court is due to open in July, and Myrus expects to also launch a third in the capital by the end of the year.
“If I can get the real estate right, I would open as many as eight more in 2020. Three to four in London, with the balance split between Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and maybe Edinburgh.”
Food cart original
From humble beginnings on a New York sidewalk, The Halal Guys has grown into a global brand. The eponymous ‘Guys’ are Egyptian immigrants Mohammed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abedelbaset Elsayed, who opened a hot dog cart in 1990 having held down a number of odd jobs.
After realising there was a huge demand from Muslim cab drivers for authentic halal cuisine, however, the trio decided to convert their stand into a halal food cart. News of the cart spread thanks to the cabbies, who flocked there for its ability to provide a cheap and reliable halal meal, and soon it became popularised by New York’s Muslim community.
The food is messy, no frills fare that is somewhere between a burrito bar and a typical British kebab house. There’s a choice of beef cut from the gyro cone and finished on the grill, marinated chicken or falafels, served either on a platter with rice and salad or in a pitta sandwich, and topped with the brand’s signature white and red sauces. Prices range from £6 to £8 for mains.
“We wanted to give customers something that wasn’t just burgers,” says Abouelenein. “Our aim was to create a concept that offered hot food that was fresh and reasonably priced. We worked all hours of the day and night week after week, and people just kept coming.”
Myrus first encountered the brand after setting up the European arm of Fransmart, the franchisee behind the growth of Five Guys. Fransmart founder Dan Rowe was enamoured with The Halal Guys brand, but Myrus was initially sceptical.
“Dan told me he wanted to put a Halal Guys on every intersection, and I thought he was crazy,” says Myrus. “But then I tried the food, and my entire perception changed in an instant. I told him we’re not putting one of these on every intersection, we’re putting one on every street corner of that intersection.”
Crossing the Atlantic
The Halal Guys isn’t the first US fast-food chain to try and replicate its Stateside success across the pond. Burrito-brand Chipotle, which has more than 1,000 US sites, launched in the UK back in 2010 with the company’s founder, Steve Ells, saying that he thought prospects were “very good for [the company] in London”. In January this year, Chipotle opened its first restaurant in the capital in nearly four years, bringing its UK tally to just eight.
Premium burger chain Smashburger entered the UK market in 2016 having grown steadily in the US. After debuting in Milton Keynes, it announced plans to rapidly expand to six other UK locations within the first 12 months with an eye to open 35 sites across Britain in the following few years. So far, however, it has failed to secure any further sites beyond those announced in its first year.
“I would say there are certainly a number of brands that have overextended themselves in the last five years or so,” says Myrus. “It’s not just global chains either. Jamie’s Italian and GBK are facing significant losses, Patisserie Valerie has gone into administration. These are brands that overbought and are now struggling as a result.”
Myrus dismisses suggestions that his plans to grow The Halal Guys brand in the UK is overly ambitious, saying the decision to concentrate on opening 20 sites over the next five years is realistic. “We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin. Expansion should not simply be predicated on previous success, and for me the driving factor will always be real estate. In the restaurant business it’s all about location, location, location.”
ITICO F+B, which holds the exclusive franchise rights to The Halal Guys in the UK, is using location intelligence platform Geoblink to examine footfall data, and it is the information gleaned from this analysis that helps Myrus decide where he chooses to open his next site.
“People have said to me that in London there’s a Five Guys on every corner, but that’s because there are five sites within a square mile space. And that’s the reality with The Halal Guys. I could open 200 restaurants in the UK tomorrow, but if I didn’t get the location right then it would still seem like there weren’t any here.”
What Myrus ultimately believes sets The Halal Guys apart from other fast-casual chains looking to expand, however, is that it has no direct competitors.
“We are an interesting and unique brand. Most fast food establishments have vast menus that don’t necessarily contain a high nutritional value, while we offer a simple, more focused choice. We’re serving grilled meats, be it marinated chicken or gyro beef, and pairing it with salad and rice. For those who do not eat meat, we offer falafel. And that’s it.”
“We have something special,” adds Abouelenein. “We’re a fast-casual operation, but everything we sell is fresh. Walk into your average fast-food restaurant and your meal will consist of processed ingredients, but here all the processing happens in front the of customer in our open kitchen. It’s honest and simple food.”
Despite his confidence, Myrus still had concerns about bringing the brand to market over here. Gyro cones bear more than a passing resemblance to doner, and are synonymous in the UK with a culture of late-night kebabs being devoured shambolically on a street corner by someone hoping in vein that it will stave off a hangover. It’s hardly considered to be the sort of food the family can sit down to in the early evening.
“We’re not ignorant of how some may perceive us,” says Myrus. “We want people to see us as a brand that is able to adapt to British culture, but can also offer consumers something new. And to do this we’ve focused a lot of attention on making sure we get the voice right when we interact with the community.”
Myrus remembers when The Halal Guys first announced that it was going to be opening in the UK, one of the first responses was from someone saying that chlorinated US chickens would not be welcome over here. “It’s not like we could do that even if we wanted to,” he says with bemusement, before confirming that all chickens sold by The Halal Guys here will be sourced from within the UK.
Then there’s the question of halal. The Islamic ritual slaughter is an essential part of the Muslim faith, but many animal rights activists consider it to be a cruel practise that causes the animal to suffer unnecessarily.
Halal is a hot topic of debate on these shores, and Myrus accepts that it will always carry some negative connotations. However, he also believes that through the expansion of The Halal Guys, there may be space to develop a more thoughtful conversation around the issue.
“There are activist groups out there that hold a certain view, and I would think that view is born somewhat out of ignorance,” he says. “The practise of halal is one that has been refined over thousands of years. Our meat is HMC (Halal Monitoring Committee) certified, which means that I know all the animals we serve have been treated humanely from the day they are born to the day they are slaughtered. The only way more people are going to understand this is if you help educate them. Do I think our brand has that capability, sure? But what I can’t tell you right now is how to tap into that and get the message right.”
So far, according to Myrus, the reaction from those who have visited the Leicester Square site has been uniformly positive. Launch day saw two and a half hour queues backing up down Irving Street and into the Square, and more than a thousand meals were served. In the days since it opened, the restaurant is reported to have consistently hit its daily target.
In Abouelenein’s eyes, it’s no accident. “The success of Halal Guys doesn’t come from nothing,” he says. “There’s an incredible kinship between London and New York. Both are melting pots with strong multicultural histories, happy to accept people of all races and faiths. And if London continues to embrace us like it has, then god willing, there will always be an opportunity for us to expand.”
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the May issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.