"Power to hospitality": Burgerism and Nell's tell us how to succeed in a challenging Manchester market

Two popular food and drink spots open up on their success amid the hospitality crisis.
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It’s tough out there for hospitality businesses at the moment. In Manchester, several much-loved restaurants have closed their doors for good over the last few months and others are warning they will be next without support in the form of VAT reductions. 

At the same time, however, there are some homegrown Manchester businesses that are thriving. Nell’s is one of those success stories. With two city centre sites and one in Chorlton, the pizza restaurant is preparing to sign on another city centre restaurant and are considering another one in South Manchester.

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It’s a similar situation for Burgerism, which started out as a Salford dark kitchen and is now preparing to open its fifth location in Tameside, having gained the reputation as one of the best takeaways in the country. 

We caught up with Nell’s founder Johnny Heyes and Burgerism’s Director of Operations Emily Hawkley on the sidelines of the Northern Restaurant and Bar conference 2024 to talk about growing a business in Manchester, what it takes to succeed and why there is still reason to be optimistic about the industry’s future.

Burgerism was named Takeaway of the Year at the 2024 Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards Burgerism was named Takeaway of the Year at the 2024 Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards
Burgerism was named Takeaway of the Year at the 2024 Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards

“Getting into a good spot”

Burgerism founder Mark Murphy started smashing burgers in his Salford warehouse dark kitchen in 2018. These are commonplace now, but at the time these takeaway-only food operators were few and far between.

“He opened a warehouse, starting smashing burgers and it went from there,” said the company’s director of operations Emily Hawkley. “I wish I could take credit for Burgerism's growth, but really it comes from our founder Mark, who had an idea for a burger concept and opened a dark kitchen, which wasn't being done at the time, without a kind of aggregator like Deliveroo, to open a branded kitchen.

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“I think there has been so much change in Burgerism, but one thing that Mark has always been very clear on is our vision and where we want to be. What's come along the way, which is brilliant, is the culture piece where we really want to be able to offer amazing jobs. We also want to make sure that we lower the ladder for diversity in Manchester, which is something really personal to me.”

Before the first Nell’s opened up during lockdown, founder Jonny Heyes had been in the business for 20 years. His portfolio includes Common, which is now home to one of the Nell’s kitchens, Port Street Beer House, the Beagle pub in Chorlton, home of another Nell’s kitchen, Nell’s Kampus and the sell-out Indy Man Beer Con which takes place annually at Victoria Baths. With Nell’s, Jonny says they are trying to bring all aspects of the business “under one umbrella”.

Jonny said: “It's been interesting because it has been fused with the Covid pandemic and all that kind of stuff, so we basically didn't get started until the first lockdown. It's been quite challenging, quite interesting. We're using Nell's to transform the whole business, which has been kind of challenging but good. I think we're getting into a good spot.”

“Where real people live”

For the past few years, both businesses have focused on building their brands within Greater Manchester and are only now looking at expansion elsewhere. For Burgerism, serving these local communities was an important part of the business’ mission.

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Last year, they opened a successful franchise in Gatley which has served a “roadmap” for further expansion – that’s where Denton comes in. Emily told ManchesterWorld that when they were looking for new areas of Greater Manchester to explore, they looked through some of the community Facebook groups in the area and were “bowled over by how much people are crying out for something”.

Emily said:  “That's where we feel real people live. People's dining area for us is their living room and their car, that can be anywhere, we don't need a big posh dining room. It would be beautiful if we did, I'm sure, but why don't the people of Denton deserve to have a little bit of Burgerism.

“What we realise is that we don't really want to be someone that puts flagposts in random cities. I think we love Manchester and we kind of just branching out into the pockets where we're not, and I think that's kind of where we'll go. We just keep branching a little bit further, so once we've hit Denton, do we go further out? Which direction do we go in? We just want to keep filling the spaces around the North West until it gets wider.” 

Nell’s has also understood and embraced the local foodie scenes in the suburbs, where there are different kinds of markets. While the overall “vibe” is the same as the city centre sites, they find increasing success with their delivery services. While they might not have as much lunchtime trade in Chorlton at the Beagle, that site is more family-orientated. 

“Power to hospitality”

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As Nell’s and Burgerism look to expand, there are other hospitality businesses in Manchester that are facing closure. In January chef Simon Rimmer warned of a growing hospitality crisis following the closure of his Didsbury restaurant Greens after 33 years due to rising rent prices. In a response, a campaign headed by night time economy adviser Sacha Lord is urging the government to reduce VAT rates for hospitality businesses. Speaking to ManchesterWorld at the Northern Restaurant and Bar conference, Lord described this as “the buffer zone that we need for the industry to survive.”

For Jonny, survival in the current climate means staying positive. It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Nell’s having started during the pandemic. He said: “It is challenging, there's no two ways about it. A year ago, we put out and advert for a chef and we wouldn't get a single application. Things are improving a little bit. Inflation has been affecting everyone but it's been affecting businesses really strongly.

“You can kind of get into the habit of just complaining about everything all the time. There are challenges for every business, maybe they are a bit more acute for hospitality, I think that's probably true, but I don't want to spend all my time just moaning about it. 

“I think we've got to be optimistic. It should be the default setting really. I mean, we need to fight our corner, whether that's on VAT or business rates, I think you've got to do it for a position of optimism because people just stop listening otherwise. It's like: Oh it's just the hospitality lot moaning again.” 

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There are other signs that things will only improve for the wider food and drink scene, namely in the growing interest in Manchester from successful operators in other cities. He added: “The fact that we've got people like Blacklock and Caravan, all these London operators, coming up, it says something about where Manchester sits in the national conversation around food and drink.”

For Burgerism, they believe their survival depends on looking after its customer, which means accessibility, quality and simplicity. Emily explained: “There's a reality that it's tough and businesses are closing and it's a tragedy. Something that we try to do with Burgerism is try to be really, really fair on price and quality. And we try to offer something that's amazing at a fair price point, which is accessible for all.

“Some businesses that aren't accessible for all struggle, but also people who take on massive rents, and all these things that we do as businesses. At Burgerism, we're trying to keep things simple. We're hoping that's the key to our success, we believe it is. We believe it's been the key to how well we've done so far. I really empathise with hospitality. It's a tough environment. 

“But the world is struggling and we see that, and I guess we just try and be there as employers for our crew, make sure that the people that are ordering from us are getting value for their money because they work their balls off to get in. Let's not mess about with it. I think we're hoping that that sees us through. Power to hospitality.”

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