You can't eat in this restaurant. But while others close, this one is booming

Burgerism in Salford
-Credit: (Image: Manchester Evening News)

"When I first mentioned the idea, people thought I was crazy, they didn't think it would work," says Mark Murphy, the co-founder of one of Greater Manchester's most successful food delivery businesses.

It all started at a 'dark kitchen' on the Willan Industrial State in Salford in 2018. Sandwiched between an electrical wholesalers and a company which makes mass transport fare collection systems, there's a no frills hole in the wall, which is responsible for kickstarting a massive Manchester food movement.

If you've not quite worked it out yet, you'll most likely recognise the name. Burgerism, the Manchester-based delivery brand that started by slinging out smashed burgers from a "solitary shack", has gone on to open several shops across the region, and has also recently been crowned one of UK's best burger spots.

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Not bad for a business that only started six years ago. But talk to Mark for a few minutes and you soon realise that while the proposition may be fairly straightforward - restaurant-quality burgers, fried chicken, wings and fries - it's taken a lot of work to get to this point.

"When we started out I was in the kitchen for seven days a week for the first two years," admits Mark, a former equity analyst who quit London and moved up North to launch Burgerism several years ago.

Burgerism launched inside a dark kitchen on a Salford industrial estate in 2018
'It’s not a glamorous spot. We did discuss upgrading it but it takes away some of the magic' -Credit:Manchester Evening News

"It wasn't just about numbers and data though, we were there every day because we were obsessed with getting it right. We were the first smashed burger brand in Manchester and I think the first dark kitchen in the city - it used to be a piano auctioneer that we converted into a dark kitchen where there's no seating and food is picked up or distributed.

"I don’t think we really knew what we were doing. But so many people I met said no one will order food from a warehouse, so it was enjoyable to prove those people wrong. It’s weird now though because people do want that authentic experience of ordering food from somewhere a bit different."

Mark, who finished his architecture degree around the time of the financial crash in 2008, worked in a few places - including a stint at an Irish bar in Paris - before deciding to do a Masters in finance and landing his role in finance in London.

“I went into finance and banking with an eye to opening a business at some point. It's a good place to learn about business strategy and how to build into a sector.

Burgerism launched inside a dark kitchen on a Salford industrial estate in 2018
Burgerism launched inside a dark kitchen on a Salford industrial estate in 2018

"I did that for about five years, and during that time we met with some of the team from Just Eat and learnt just how much growth there was in delivery. It became apparent at the time that there was so much untapped in terms of what customers were searching for or looking to eat in certain postcodes.”

It would be his partnership with UberEats following this that would lead him to starting a business in Manchester though. "Before I even conceptualised what sort of food we wanted to do, we built a relationship with them.

"We realised you needed to have good partners to get off the ground because hospitality is so competitive. The industry is very high risk as well, because a lot of people can start restaurants, coffee shops and bars so you need to have that original angle.

“You can create a great pizza but if you don't do something more than that people lose interest and the quality and consistency eventually drops off. I’m longer in hospitality than any other industry now and suppliers will say that it’s good to work with someone with my background."

Burgerism in Gatley
Burgerism in Gatley -Credit:Supplied

Looking to the United States for inspiration and food trends that were taking off there, fellow co-founder John, who worked for the business for the first few years, identified the opportunity in smashed burgers - ground beef smashed onto a grill or griddle to create a crispy edge which locks in all the juices and flavour.

"Smashed burgers stood out and it was initially about keeping the menu lean, so just burgers, fries and dips at the start. It was very much about producing food quickly and consistently, but it's interesting to think we were the first doing it here when there's so many on the market now.

"Admittedly, I spent less time in the kitchen than my business partners John and Peter in the early years. I was more focused on the dispatch, so all the processes such as how we pack and prepare the food, how we get the burgers to the driver and customer, and the packaging too."

Burgerism has kitchens across Greater Manchester
Burgerism has kitchens across Greater Manchester -Credit:Manchester Evening News

The hard work has paid off though. Today, Burgerism boasts two dark kitchens - the flagship in Salford and one in Manchester - as well as takeaways in Gatley and Denton, plus a presence at two food halls - Freight Island at Mayfield Depot near Manchester Piccadilly, and Blackstock Market in Liverpool.

The food halls offer the closest you'll get to dining at Burgerism, but sit amongst a host of other food and drink traders, serving as more of a concession than restaurant experience. Instead, the burger brand has expanded based on a off-premise dining only model where the majority of customers order their meals online and collect from the nearest location.

Edging closer to Mark's ambition to be the number one delivery burger brands across the UK, last year, Burgerism was named one of Deliveroo's top trending dishes for 2023. It was also recently named as one of The Times' Top 10 Burgers in Britain.

"I would say our sites in Denton and Gatley are sort of like Domino's sites, so on the high street but with a cool looking store front, but you just pick up your food and go - lots of people just want grab-and-go, they don't want to spend ages in a queue or at a till."

Burgerism has a concession at Freight Island at Mayfield Depot
Burgerism has a concession at Freight Island at Mayfield Depot -Credit:Manchester Family / MEN

Mark puts a lot of success down to jumping on the delivery trend at the right time, but also seeking out the customers buying into this way of eating.

“If you think about Gen Z, they started to become part of the purchasing community around the time we launched. If they were 18 then, they’re now 24 and they’re driving trends.

"One thing I see a lot is that they want authenticity, they’re fed up of being oversold, and they don’t buy into the marketing spiel of ‘we’ve got the best, or the freshest’. I think what’s been shoved down our throats on social media for the last decade is looking very tired.

"We recognised the demand for delivery a long time ago, and we’ve been able to find an audience because they can see we’re dedicated to that and it’s not an afterthought. We’ve been lucky that delivery has grown at that time.

Wings at Burgerism include BBQ, Lemon Pepper of Buffalo
Wings at Burgerism include BBQ, Lemon Pepper and Buffalo -Credit:Manchester Evening News

“I think with hospitality you can over sell yourself and with us there was almost like this shock that quality burgers and fries were coming out of a hole in the wall - it’s not a glamorous spot. We did discuss upgrading it but it takes away some of the magic."

But as Burgerism grows, and looks to expand further into Greater Manchester and Merseyside, other hospitality businesses - those with a more traditional dine-in approach - are struggling. In recent weeks, some of the issues facing restaurants and bars have led a number of established spots to close their doors.

“It’s almost too easy to get into, it’s a tempting proposition and almost romanticised," Mark says. "But ultimately, it’s too hard an industry to make money from.

"Hospitality is very demanding, you have to have everything correct, and consumers will expect a lot, especially as wallets are tighter than they were pre-Covid. When I talk through margins with people, most cannot believe how much is lost. Money gets eaten up very quickly in hospitality and I don’t think that’s right, given how big a role it plays in the economy.

Burgerism's double cheese burger sits alongside a range or beef, chicken and plant-based options
Burgerism's double cheese burger sits alongside a range or beef, chicken and plant-based options -Credit:Burgerism

“Where I see the challenge at the moment is that VAT is too high. I would like to see the government encouraging more independent brands and I think up until 10 sites you should be classed as independent, because we’re full of chains in the UK and maybe that’s because it’s only chains that can make the economics work.

“However there are still those occasions, say a birthday or an event, you’ll still want to eat out somewhere special and hospitality has space for all of that. For me, the hospitality sector is so important because it can define a city, it’s part of its fabric.”

“There’s lots of local success stories coming out of Manchester though, like Rudy’s for example and Albert Schloss. Pollen and Nell’s too," Mark adds. "All of those have in common an attention to detail, from packaging and uniforms to how the team is trained. Also about recognising blind spots.”

On blind spots, or rather careful next steps, Mark says they're currently underserved in the north of Manchester and are eying up opportunities in Oldham, Rochdale and Bury, amongst others, but says it's about building on what they have rather than planting flags.

"In-N-Out Burger didn’t leave the state of California for decades. They grew the right way, they grew that sustainable base.

"For me, it's about growing outwards from Manchester so that we can take our team with us so our culture and product grows properly. At the same time, we're not afraid to go against convention."