Two weeks ago I finally had the chance to visit the original Halal Guys on 53rd street. My visit was actually unplanned, I was on my way to the MOMA, saw the cart and decided to make an impromptu stop. I’ve had Halal Guys in other cities before and always came away thoroughly unimpressed (though always sweating thanks to their famous hot sauce!). The original Halal Guys was another story, the rice was fluffy and the meat succulently moist, and even though I scarfed my meal down standing up, it was a transformative experience and I now know why all the New Yorkers say there is nothing like the original. There really isn’t. And that’s a problem.
Halal Guys recently closed their Austin location. This restaurant was in a prime location, right next to the UT-Austin, so it should have been very successful with the student population who are always on the prowl for affordable but delicious food. But something clearly went wrong.
I also had Halal Guys in New Orleans several years ago. News broke earlier in September that a location there closed as well. What struck me as odd about both of these store closings was that the reports in both cases indicate the corporate office was unaware that the locations were closed, suggesting some difficulties/tensions between corporate and franchise owners. Outside of the 6 stores and carts in NYC that are corporate owned, all other Halal Guys are franchised.
The business at their San Francisco location (which I frequented from time to time for lunch) was also similarly perplexing. There was a huge buzz in San Francisco when the news broke that an SF location would open. It took what seemed like an eternity for the physical store to actually open (they were doing only Caviar delivery for several months), but several months after opening, it seemed like their business dropped off a cliff. Even at peak lunch hours, I’m was able to get in and out in less than 5 minutes. There were very few customers. One reason for this could be that the area the store was in was primarily a tourist area and not many tourists associate Halal Guys with San Francisco. Or a simpler explanation could just be that people just didn’t like the food there all that much.
These are somewhat limited experiences and can’t account for all their locations, but I’m beginning to sense that something isn’t going quite right with the Halal Guys. It may start with their decision to aggressively through franchising — a strategy that greatly reduces risks for them financially but could possibly impact quality if franchises aren’t able to execute.
The franchise locations I’ve been to were all clean and neat inside. The food, however, as I hinted at earlier, was never close to the level of deliciousness of the original food truck. Dry meats, overcooked rice, stale gyro bread, and soggy vegetables defined the majority of my visits to franchise locations. Only the sauces were the same. Were franchises unable to execute on the original recipes of the founders? Could they have done better if they had pursued a corporate-owned strategy? Or is it that the deliciousness of the original is a function of the worn cart grills, NYC air, and NYC hustle that simply can’t be replicated anywhere else?
I’m curious to see what the future holds for the Halal Guys. Perhaps their other US and international stores are doing better. No matter what happens, if I ever find myself at 53rd street, I’ll be sure to grab a bite to eat :)