Can US sensation The Halal Guys conquer the UK?

Food Spark talks to Jan van Delden, partner at franchisee ITICO UK, about The Halal Guys' entry into Britain’s fast-casual food market.

21 March 2019
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Gyro sandwich

Halal meat is one of the fastest growing food industry sectors in the world. 

In the UK, major supermarkets are now regularly stocked with halal products; restaurant chains such as Nando’s and Subway are picking it up and a number of halal-orientated start-ups are beginning to appear.

Aside from the substantial interest from young and affluent Muslim millennials – who make up an increasingly large part of the world population – one of the main reasons for the industry’s show-stopping performance is that the concept is starting to permeate beyond the traditional Muslim demographic and enter the mainstream.

In the fast-casual dining market, US-based franchise The Halal Guys owes much of its success to the new, non-Muslim interest in halal meat.

Originally a single food cart in New York run by three Egyptian immigrants, the concept quickly became a firm favourite with the Muslim taxi drivers across the city. It wasn’t long before the high-quality gyros, hefty platters and falafels started to attract the attention of the rest of the Big Apple.

Almost 30 years later, The Halal Guys encompasses five food carts and two fully fledged restaurants in NYC – with 200 more either open or coming soon elsewhere in the US and the rest of the world.

London is next on the agenda, with next week’s opening on March 30 in Leicester Square marking the brand’s first foray into Europe.

Growing faster than Five Guys

Falafel platter with hummus

ITICO UK is the franchisee for The Halal Guys in the UK, spearheading the brand’s arrival in the market.

“The fact that the meat at The Halal Guys is strictly halal doesn’t mean it has to have a specific demographic,” Jan van Delden, a partner at ITICO, tells Food Spark.

“When The Halal Guys started all those years ago, there was really no accessible halal food around in the US but they have managed to revolutionise the halal scene in the US home market.”

Van Delden says the brand has experienced a greater growth rate than Five Guys over the last couple of years – largely due to diners becoming more enthusiastic and investigative when it comes to food. One of the greatest appeals of halal products for non-religious eaters is the perception that it has a higher threshold for quality and more stringent hygiene regulations.

However, there is a degree of contentiousness over the method of slaughter involved. The Halal Guys UK is sourcing its meat from producers who comply with Halal Monitoring Committee standards – standards that forbid the stunning of animals before slaughter. Some animal rights activists have called this practice inhumane, though supporters say it is kinder than other methods conventionally used.

While this remains a point of debate, van Delden says that around 85% of The Halal Guys consumers are non-Muslim. “You might say that that makes them religious-boundary breaking,” he adds.

An everyday menu for everyone

The Halal Guys menu is short and sweet: punters choose from chicken, beef gyro, a combination of the two or falafel, served in either a sandwich or as part of a platter. This comes with a choice of toppings, as well as a hot sauce or a dairy-free white sauce.

“The menu is very simple, which is in the DNA of the brand. It’s very hard to misunderstand [the menu] and the food is very direct and easy to serve – which helps with the never-ending queues!” said Van Delden.

“The food is for everyday and for everyone. A third of the menu is vegan while there’s real value for money in terms of the portion sizes. It’s American portioning!”

So will The Halal Guys be making any significant changes to the concept in Europe?

“Interestingly, when we brought the franchise to the Philippines, we thought we might have to change the portion sizes, as Americans have huge appetites and, generally, have more expendable income,” continues Van Delden.

“But the vast majority of Filipino customers bought the traditional platter. They wanted the real thing!”

Van Delden points out that London and New York both have an international customer base and are very similar in terms of trends and tastes, so the concept will largely remain the same.

The Halal Guys’ Leicester Square site, which has an exclusive takeaway partnership with Uber Eats, will start the ball rolling for the brand, but ITICO has already secured two more London outposts.

The second restaurant is due to open in the summer, with 20 UK sites planned over the next five years.  

“We’ve had staff train on site in NYC and everything is ready to go,” said Van Delden. “This has been a couple of years in the making and we can’t wait to open now. And we want to open with a bang with the first one – we’ll have some chaos in Leicester Square on 30th March, that’s for sure!”

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