I pass by 6th Ave and 53rd Street on a daily basis after classes. It’s not an unfamiliar sight to see the six The Halal Guys halal carts (and one The Halal Guys catering van) with lines of hungry New Yorkers on their lunch break. Neighboring hot dog stands and nearby parked food trucks cannot compete with the loyalty New Yorkers have given to The Halal Guys and those street vendors often find themselves looking down on their phones much more often than on the grill. It’s heart breaking to see other street vendors including competing halal carts attempt the impossible of perhaps snagging one customer from the long lines for they not only sacrifice a more profitable location for the exclusive spot to be near The Halal Guys node, but also their permit usage which is constantly ticking down until its expiration date.
However, once I leave the busy streets of Manhattan, I found an interesting discovery. Bordering LaGuardia Community College located on Thomson Ave is another chain of various halal carts and other food carts waiting to serve hungry college kids. To my surprise there is another The Halal Guys cart located within this chain of food carts but it was the least popular one! There was not a single customer ordering and the vendor manning the cart at that time even had the grill turned off. Students and other pedestrians were lining up at other neighboring carts varying in names and products, but The Halal Carts had their popularity turned against them.
Having the tables turned upon this realization, I recall there are other well known halal carts within their own respective region. For example, Shah’s Halal Cart and Sammy’s are some of the most dominant halal carts in Queens. Shah’s also has recently expanded to Long Island with a cart located in Hicksville! Although the name “The Halal Guys” is often the first one we think of, given their popularity and success that allowed them to branch into catering and a brick-and-mortar store, New Yorkers will always save a space in their stomachs for local favorites. I cannot say on behalf of New York that this is present in other remaining boroughs such as Brooklyn or the Bronx, but according to online reviews, Queens residents seem to have their hearts (and stomachs) set on Shah’s over The Halal Guys.
I think there’s something specific about that 53rd street and 6th avenue location that is particularly appealing to customers. The cart there is filled with long lines and customers waiting nearly an hour to get their food. I think people like this location so much because it is the first cart that Halal Guys operated. So, I think there’s something special to that. Also, there’s a ‘follower mentality’ that I think people have when eating food. Usually, if something is popular and lots of people are lining up to eat there, then eventually other people will follow and eat at the same location.
I have never tried eating at Halal Guys before, but from reading your post I can surmise that the workers and cooks at Halal Guys put in a lot of efforts to prepare the best meals for their customers. Perhaps, aside from the food that the customers find to be delectable, Halal Guys also offer some form of customer service that the traditional Halal Carts do not, and I believe this is the primary factor that’s responsible for the customers’ willingness to get in the long line. I agree that it is extremely difficult for the traditional Halal carts owners and cooks to compete with Halal Guys, because as a restaurant it has more than enough resources, as well as the employees, to serve all the customers waiting on line.
I can totally vouch for the popularity of Shah’s halal carts in Queens. There used to be one by my middle school that everyone lined up for after classes, in addition to one not too far from my high school where everyone ate. Until doing this project and paying attention to the dynamics of the halal cart business, its relation to immigration, etc. I actually didn’t even notice the names of halal carts–the only one I was familiar with was The Halal Guys. It seems as though this is a very competitive market, where popularity is bound to produce deep profits. Perhaps this is why recent immigrants become so involved in this industry: earning a steady income while practicing English through speaking with customers and having time for oneself after work might attract those looking to provide better futures for their families.