When UT students think of halal food, most think first of the gyro over rice at Halal Bros, which has served the campus community since 2010, but most aren’t aware of the dish’s origin story.
Halal Guys, which opened a location in Austin over the summer, started as a food truck in New York in 1990. The three original owners started as hotdog vendors, but became famous for being the first to mass produce halal food via food truck.
“They saw the need for something different. That’s when they introduced chicken and gyro over rice, with halal meat,” said Adil Maknojia, owner of Halal Guys’ Austin location.
Maknojia said Halal Guys was able to garner such widespread popularity for the quick and convenient food catered to New York’s cab drivers, most of whom are immigrants of Muslim faith.
“(The cab drivers) were looking for fresh food, hot food, halal meat — that’s how Halal Guys gained their popularity,” Maknojia said.
Because of their success in New York, Halal Guys decided to expand their franchise nationwide. Today, they have 400 franchise units worldwide.
Halal Bros, an Austin restaurant on Guadalupe Street, Maknojia said, “used Halal Guys’ name” without their knowledge.
“When they started, they started with the name, Halal Guys,” Maknojia said. “The famous New York name helped the Halal Bros get their start.”
Maknojia said Halal Bros ultimately changed their name in 2013 after three years of operation as Halal Guys, but Maknojia said tension has remained between the two restaurants because of their similar names, products and customers.
“It’s creating a confusion in the market right now,” Maknojia said. “People think either we are the same or we are associated with each other somehow. We’re two different, independent businesses.”
Most UT students are familiar with the restaurant Halal Bros’ huge portions available to college student-sized wallets. Humza Ahmed says it’s the Bros’ rags-to-riches story from food truck to brick-and-mortar that isn’t common knowledge.
“The owner came down from New York with his family and cousins and started a food truck,” said Ahmed, rhetoric and writing junior and Halal Bros’ public relations manager. “That food truck got popular and then they built this place, their first brick and mortar.”
Mohammad Zakzuk, an electrical engineering senior and owner of Halal Bros, said Halal “Bros” are exactly what their name implies: brothers. The Attal family likes to say they run Halal Bros’ three locations the same way they run their family.
“This is not just a money investment. This is more like a life investment,” Zakzuk said. “That’s why we treat it so well. It means a lot to us.”
As a locally founded business, Zakzuk said Halal Bros tries to treat their community like family as well.
“We are friends with our (local) produce and meat distributors,” Zakzuk said. “That’s what makes us stand out.”
They may not boast a large network of local providers, but Maknojia said Halal Guys stays true to their roots by using the same providers as their New York locations and staying committed to their signature dish.
“The longer the menu, the worse the food is,” Maknojia said.
Ahmed said he acknowledges Halal Guys’ culinary legacy in New York, but recognizes the Bros’ place apart from it.
“I’m not going to lie, they’re one of the most influential halal food places out there, but the issue is that they franchise — and when you franchise, you lose quality,” Ahmed said. “We’re still local.”
Ahmed said Halal Bros even has dedicated customers from as far away as Dallas.
“They’ll drive four hours to come eat Halal Bros,” Ahmed said. “That tells you how much impact Halal Bros has in the South.”
With Halal Bros’ Austonian roots, Zakzuk said he isn’t worried about sharing customers with Halal Guys or other campus halal businesses.
“Halal Bros will be here for a long time, God willing,” Zakzuk said. “It’s obvious who the originals are in Austin.”