Beloved New York City street cart-turned-restaurant chain The Halal Guys is closing its flagship London site in Leicester Square. The closure is a direct result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to Big Hospitality, with the severe downturn in the heart of the city — the polo mint economy, as it has been dubbed — leaving the business unviable. This is borne out by the fact that the brand will retain its restaurant in Earl’s Court, which has a higher proportion of residential footfall.
The Halal Guys opened the Leicester Square restaurant in 2019, billed as not just the first in Europe, but the start of a highly ambitious franchising plan across the continent. Its fast-casual form of Middle Eastern grilled lamb, chicken, and fried falafel, or gyro beef, served either over rice or in a wrap, comes with chilli and/or its famous ‘white’ garlicky herb sauce, and has made it one of the fastest growing restaurant chains in America.
It was founded by three Egyptians — Mohammed Abouelenein, Ahmed Elsaka and Abdelbaset Elsayed — in 1990, starting out as a street food cart on the corner of West 53rd Street and 6th Avenue in Midtown in NYC. Its expansion plans, spearheaded by the franchise development firm Fransmart, don’t appear to be on hold: franchising manager Jan van Delden has said that “there’s still plenty of potential for our brand to thrive in the U.K. market.”
With central London, and particularly Chinatown — adjacent to Leicester Square — in many ways hit hardest by COVID-19, the reconfiguration of its restaurant real estate is likely to continue over the next few months. In a year of understandably few restaurant openings, a feature of 2020 was international operators — with the franchising power and capital needed — taking over prime, vacated spaces. Seeing one as high-profile as The Halal Guys pull out of such a space is a vindication of just how much the novel coronavirus pandemic is challenging conventional real estate wisdom — and how it will continue to do so as central London slowly wakes back up.