Putting down roots The Halal Guys eager to bring distinct taste and unique training program to Jersey

From left are Joseph Hafez, general manager, and Nazmul Huda, franchise owner, during the “soft opening” of The Halal Guys' latest location in Newark.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

Both Nazmul Huda and Khattab Abuattieh fondly remembered how they would eagerly wait in long lines alongside the carts.

“I was in my teens, growing up in New York City,” Huda said.

“I was excited to introduce the food to my wife and kids,” Abuattieh said.

That is how Joseph Hafez said he knew The Halal Guys, now headquartered in Astoria, was onto something.

“I used to work in New York and would always be surprised at how long the lines were, even in the cold winters and hot summers,” Hafez said. “It is a success story that does not happen that often.”

One that Hafez, Abuattieh and Huda are all now proud to be a part of.

Huda, franchisee, and Hafez, general manager, opened The Halal Guys’ first Newark location last month.

Abuattieh, franchisee and operations manager, opened the brand’s first New Jersey location, in East Brunswick, nine months ago.

Both franchise groups are looking to further expand in the state.

Grand opening
Khattab Abuattieh, franchisee and operations manager of The Halal Guys’ East Brunswick location, said that, when his store opened nine months ago, the crowds were just as expected.
“We had a line that was more than 200 people all day long for our opening and for the next few weeks,” Abuattieh said. “Since then, it has leveled out to what we are happy with.”
Nazmul Huda, franchisee, and Joseph Hafez, general manager of the brand’s Newark location, got a taste of what that was like Jan. 27.
“It was a very cold day for our grand opening, yet we served more than 1,000 people,” Huda said. “That is a testament to the brand and to the quality of food it provides.”

“The fact that the food appeals to all demographics appealed to us as investors,” Huda said. “We wanted a concept that everyone had an interest in.”

Muhammed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed — three Egyptian immigrants who started a lone food cart in New York City to primarily serve the large population of Muslim cab drivers — founded The Halal Guys in 1990.

Halal food combines complex Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors using seasoned Halal meats, vegetables, hummus, rice, tahini and sauces that follow Islamic dietary guidelines.

Today, The Halal Guys has five carts and two storefronts in New York City and nearly 40 franchise locations, including in Canada, South Korea and the Philippines.

According to Andrew Eck, director of marketing, nearly 400 units are currently contracted for development over the next five years, each one employing nearly 45.

“We have had a very busy January,” Eck said. “Newark was just one of seven locations that we opened last month.”

Strategically located on Halsey Street in the vicinity of Rutgers University, the Prudential Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Huda and Hafez have given themselves the additional task of advancing workforce development in the city of Newark.

“Our goal is to integrate ourselves within the community,” Huda said. “A great population of people go to work and school here, but residents could use some help, being that it is an urban area.

“We want to be part of the movement that is currently changing Newark on an economic level.”

Hafez, having had a long career in the restaurant, hospitality and quick service industries, sought partnerships with the U.S. Labor Department and Goodwill to implement a unique training program that would include financial literacy and computer skills in its curriculum.

“We knew we wanted to take a different approach to hiring in order to give locals in Newark and its surrounding cities more of a chance to gain some training and soft skills that would make them more effective and likelier to stay with us longer,” Hafez said. “We wanted to create a culture unlike any other quick service restaurant.”

It is a foundation that Huda hopes his employees can take with them.

“It would be our preference to promote from within to allow for our employees to progress within our system,” he said. “But this program, hopefully, also will be productive for whatever it is they might decide to do later on.”

Huda and Hafez plan to open additional locations in New Brunswick, Edison, Montclair and Princeton.

“We would like all of our future stores to evolve from the model we have created in Newark, with a huge emphasis on training and workforce development,” Hafez said.

Abuattieh is also considering opening stores in Union and Teterboro.

Cater to clients
Andrew Eck, director of marketing for The Halal Guys, said the brand formally introduced a popular catering line last September.
“We have since had catering customers from every corporation imaginable, from various NBC shows over at 30 Rock Plaza in New York City, to high-end tech companies at our San Jose and San Francisco locations.
“And, we have even seen quite a few National Basketball Association players getting Halal food from our carts in New York City.” 

“As we expand our franchise development, maintaining that same quality of food and same level of customer service has been a huge point of emphasis for us,” Eck said. “We are tremendously fortunate that every location we have opened, whether it be in a strip mall in California or in a dense, urban area such as Chicago, has matched the success of our carts in New York City.”

Eck said The Halal Guys is most pleased with the levels of excitement and diversity among its fans.

“More than 90 percent of our customers are not Muslim,” Eck said. “The cart, which started out with the purpose of serving Muslim cab drivers, has grown a fan base of all races, backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.”

Both Abuattieh and Hafez said the East Brunswick and Newark locations are reflective of that.

“The East Brunswick location on Route 18 topped the list for diverse areas that had a strong customer base and desire for our brand,” Abuattieh said.

Secret (sauce) to success
Despite all appearances, long lines move rather quickly at The Halal Guys’ locations due to the brand’s speed of service.
But what, exactly, keeps everyone from walking away?
Most would say it is The Halal Guys’ secret “white sauce,” or the addictive, creamy condiment that the beef, chicken and rice dishes are seasoned with.
The Halal Guys keeps its selection of herbs and spices under wraps, but welcomes others to try to re-create the recipe by releasing the sauce’s other ingredients: soybean; canola oil; egg yolk; vinegar; water; salt; sugar; and black pepper.

“From the response we have had over the past couple of days, I see that people will go the distance to find different kinds of foods that they are not used to,” Hafez said. “The locals in Newark especially love to try new things.”

Huda said that especially in today’s cultural climate, he is proud of the brand’s ability to attract a wide array of people.

“When you have people from different backgrounds and age groups all waiting on line together, a lot of times, that can help bring people together,” he said. “We are proud of that, and hopefully, we can keep that going.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

Meg Fry

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