Why This Halal Guys Fan Quit His Job to Open the Brand's First Franchise

Paul Tran used to be a consultant who helped franchises grow. Then he ditched the corporate job for life as a franchisee.

learn more about Lydia Belanger

By Lydia Belanger

Shane Lopes

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When Paul Tran visited New York as a twentysomething in 2012, he'd skip the tourist attractions and head straight for a Halal Guys food cart. The budding brand was a local obsession, dishing out chicken, gyros and "famous white sauce." Tran would carry platters of food on his flights back home to California, filling the cabin with an aroma that, though delicious, was perhaps too aggressive for cross-country air travel.

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Then one day, the Halal Guys came to him. He was working for the franchise development company Fransmart, helping to scale chains like Qdoba and Five Guys. Halal Guys became a client, looking to open its first brick-and-mortar stores -- and in 2014, instead of helping as a consultant, Tran left his job and signed on as the first U.S. franchisee, setting up shop in Southern California. Today the brand has close to 70 locations; Tran and his partners own nine and plan to consistently open eight more each year.

When you were working with Fransmart, did you ever consider becoming a franchisee?

I've been an entrepreneur and restaurateur before, and I love the experience. I think in the back of my head, I knew I'd eventually jump back in. Every time we'd take on a new client at Fransmart, it felt like a new business experience, so I got my entrepreneurial fix. But Halal Guys was just way too strong -- I couldn't sit on the sidelines.

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Was it tough bringing Halal Guys to the West Coast?

People were familiar with the brand, but they didn't know we were coming to California. So we needed to get the best real estate -- the corner lots, the prominent locations. That's very expensive, and even if you can afford it, it's usually occupied by best-in-class brands like Chipotle, Panera, Starbucks. We went against conventional wisdom and went to the small suburb of Costa Mesa, which is actually a thriving food hub. For the first month, there were three-to-six-hour waits, all day, every day. We did eventually enter markets like downtown L.A. and West Hollywood, but Costa Mesa is still our strongest store.

You've worked in the franchise world for a long time. What fresh lessons have you learned as a franchisee?

It's easy to think that in franchising, everything's already done and you just need to be good at executing. But emerging brands learn along the way. Halal Guys is not a franchise where you just plug and play. It requires a lot of excitement, passion, perseverance and patience. Franchisees and franchisors both need to have a lot more compassion.

You recruited four business partners to help build this brand in California. What did you consider in building the team?

Half of us have growing families, and we're all still pretty young. I'm 35, and the others range in age from 27 to 40. We went into business knowing that we wanted to be able to enjoy our lives. That's the reason we have a five-person partnership -- it's worth sharing profits if it means you can attend your kid's music recital or travel with your family.

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Because you all were young, did Halal Guys hesitate to bring you on as multi-unit franchisees?

They definitely took a chance on us. So how do we make them proud and ensure that we're not making a ton of mistakes from inexperience? We invested in really strong management. We spent a lot of money to hire a 75-unit area manager from Panera and really gave him the reins. We've also recruited managers from other well-known chains. We don't want this to be a mom-and-pop operation; we want this to be a world-class operation. Because of that, we lost a little bit of money on the front end, but it's been paying back in dividends.

Lydia Belanger
Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.

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