The New York City website for the Halal Guys, 53rdand6th.com, marks the location of the Manhattan corner where some 27 years ago a food cart suddenly appeared selling lamb and chicken prepared in accordance with Islamic law.
The big idea of three Egyptian immigrants, Mohamed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed, the value-priced menu was made to order for Muslim cab drivers to take away.
But soon, the city at large discovered the pleasures of Middle Eastern-spiced pita sandwiches and platters served over rice that could be doused with a baffling but crave-worthy white sauce. Long lines, more carts, and brick-and-mortar shops followed.
Then in 2014, the Queens-based business began venturing out, offering fast-casual franchises for brick-and-mortar Halal Guys locations around the U.S. and the world with the goal of becoming the next Five Guys or Chipotle.
The first metro Atlanta restaurant officially opened last week in a brightly colored red-and-yellow building on the corner of Chamblee Tucker Road and Buford Highway in Chamblee.
True to form, long lines fueled the excitement, as devotees joined curiosity seekers in search of a taste of a New York-style street food favorite among the multicultural Buford Highway scene.
Georgia franchisee Moynul Chowdhury and Halal Guys’ director of training, Juan Bustamante, who were on hand to talk about the concept, were obviously pleased with the response, pointing out one man they said had been in every day during the weeklong soft opening.
“When we opened our first two shops in Manhattan, those were the model for the franchise,” Bustamante said. “But this is all happening because of the fans. From 1990 all the way to 2013, the Halal Guys fans were created based on word-of-mouth. And from there, we knew where we needed to go.
“We’re going to different cities because the fans and the franchisees want us to go there. Right now, there are 13 franchisee groups in several countries and here in the United States, and we have opened 29 restaurants so far. We have five in the Philippines, one in South Korea and one in Canada.”
Bustamante said that while some people may be surprised that a halal restaurant could be so successfully franchised, he believes the concept has always had broad appeal.
“Back in 1990, the vision was to give Muslim cab drivers a place to have a halal meal without having to go home or back to a restaurant in Queens,” Bustamante said. “Now, 95 percent of our customers are non-Muslim. That’s because it’s convenient, it’s a good value and the food is delicious.”
Chowdhury, who has plans to open as many as 10 Halal Guys restaurants around Atlanta, said he decided to become a franchisee because he was a fan.
“I got involved because I used to live in New York,” Chowdhury said. “I moved here as a teenager, and grew up and went to school in Atlanta. But every time I would go back to New York, I would go to eat at the Halal Guys.
"My favorite is the combo platter with both the chicken and gyro meat and the rice and the white sauce. I don’t get the hot sauce because it’s too hot for me.”
Bustamante said, “Besides how long the lines are, the main things people talk about are how good the white sauce is, and how hot the hot sauce is.”
Over the years, many people have tried to guess what’s the “special magic” in the white sauce. Maybe mayo or yogurt or tahini? But its creamy, ranch dressing-like recipe has yet to be revealed.
“It’s a company secret,” Chowdhury said, looking a little nervous. “I don’t know what’s in it. I just know everyone wants it.”
More images from a First Look at the Halal Guys in Chamblee.