From novelty to nationwide phenomenon

What are the key factors that turn a successful operation into a phenomenon? Emily Lewis looks at recent examples that have hit the tipping point from novelty to culinary epidemic

“There are exceptional people out there who are capable of starting epidemics. All you have to do is find them.” Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

While it’s doubtful Gladwell had a bagel-croissant hybrid in mind when describing how business epidemics are created, the ‘cronut’ has already earned its place as, what The Culture Trip’s Mary Slattery described “the most virally talked-about pastry in history”.

Invented in 2013 by NYC-based pastry chef Dominique Ansel, demand for the frankenfood hasn’t quelled in the slightest; just last week reports hit the web of queues outside Dominique Ansel Bakery ignoring a dead body whilst waiting for their taste of the cronut.

Scot Rossillo, self-proclaimed “bagel artist” of The Bagel Shop in Brooklyn, has had his fair share of hybrid hype. Previously having invented the ‘cragel’ (croissant-bagel), his latest experiment to hit the scenes is the muffin-bagel. Despite sounding more like a trendy breed of dog than a baked good, the ‘mufgel’ is already selling out daily, offered in flavours including chocolate chip crumb and fruity pebbles.

It’s not just experimental food that’s got the globe going crazy either. Restaurateurs have recognised the public’s increasing taste for niche cuisine from other countries and cultures. The Halal Guys, Manhattan food-cart-turned-franchise, have succeeded in pushing halal food into the mainstream, becoming the third most Yelped! business in the whole of America.

The making of a hit

Immigrating to the States in search of the American Dream, the founders of the Manhattan eatery originally set out to cater for the Muslim cab-driving community. Andrew Eck, director of marketing for The Halal Guys, explains their breakthrough in popularity being down to their “relentless focus on hospitality and consistently providing a great experience.”

Opening as a hot-dog cart on West 53rd and 6th Avenue of New York City in 1990, fast forward 26 years and The Halal Guys are now in the process of opening up two hundred units worldwide. Eck recognises that this success is also partly down to their combination of cultures. “While our origins and recipes originate from the Egyptian homeland of our founders, some seasonings and preparation methods are more closely associated with America,” he says.

Through their culture combo, The Halal Guys are looking to provide their customers with more than just a tasty platter of chicken and gyro over rice. “We see American Halal food as a bridge between the two cultures and an opportunity for people to expand their culinary knowledge,” says Eck.

Capturing imagination

The key to these unusual foods breaking into the mainstream seems to be down to their ability in capturing the imagination of customers. Rossillo’s most successful creation the rainbow bagel was imaginative enough to turn into an internet sensation.

Now offering bespoke multi-coloured bagels for weddings and birthdays, Rossillo is bombarded with daily tweets and Instagrams of his bagels. Characterising his creation as “sunshine in bagel form”, potential customers will have to join the online waiting list to get their hands on one.

Like Rossillo’s quirky bagel creations, The Halal Guys have also tapped into the personal side of food. Providing something different but delicious, Eck notes the ability of their food to “evoke memories of time spent with friends on the streets of New York.”

Maintaining the personable aspect of the brand explains their foray into becoming a franchisee, as new restaurant locations will have the benefit of their franchise partner’s local connections. Binh Tran, their San Francisco partner, “has friends and family there and is a well-respected part of those communities,” says Eck. “Those are things that would take us years to establish from New York City.”

Also strong advocators of the importance of customer experience are the bagel experts behind East Village store Tompkins Square Bagels (TSB). This independent eatery is a culinary ‘epidemic’ in its own right, with daily queues out the door as customers eagerly await a French toast bagel with birthday cake cream cheese.

Christopher Pugliese, owner of TSB, says that what keeps his patrons coming back for more is sheer hard work. “People can sense when you’ve given your best. People can sense when love and care and thought to detail have been paid,” he says.

The next step

With momentum still going strong for The Halal Guys, their latest restaurant is set to open in Las Vegas this Friday. As their first unit in Nevada, the founders aren’t afraid to predict that their famed “never ending line” of customers will be making an appearance in Sin City on 12 August.

The Halal Guys’ offering of “mouth-watering food at a fair price” has potentially placed the business at its own tipping point as it aims to move from a series of successful operations to a nationwide culinary ‘epidemic’. With developing international units in the Philippines and even South Korea, it seems to be the franchise that just keeps on giving.

With hybrid pastries and halal food entering the mainstream of cuisine suggests fruitful prospects for the future of new experiences in casual dining. Not all good ideas are capable of turning into successful business, let alone tipping over into epidemics, but it’s fascinating to watch the ones that do make it. The question is, just what kooky creation will hit the big time next?

Emily Lewis


The Halal Guys open their next franchise unit on 12 August at 3755 Spring Mountain Rd, just off the Las Vegas strip, at 9.45 am.


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