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Millions of pounds a year, queues around the block and a customer base gone neurotic: what's in Manchester's secret sauce?
Miami Crispy and the chicken shop gold rush
By Jack Dulhanty and Sophie Atkinson
For decades, it never occurred to Manchester’s chicken shop owners that they were dipping their burgers in gold. People were frying chicken burgers, and making spicy sauces for them, and there were satisfied customers and decent profits. But nobody was wildly ambitious about chicken. Nobody thought about making themselves a lottery win’s worth of loot — insiders estimate the most popular takeaways are poised to make £1.5-2 million this year — from the spicy chicken burgers native to Manchester. In fact, no one thought they were really worth paying attention to. Not until Ali Khan. Which is funny, because Ali isn’t even from here, he’s from Buckinghamshire.
Ali, 35, gets here in 2008 for university, and he’s big about food, that’s his thing. He’d be a foodie regardless of his religious beliefs. But as he puts it, Muslims can’t drink, they can’t gamble, so food feels especially important. As such, his new home is a bit of a disappointment. The year he gets here, he tells his dad he thinks it has one of the worst food scenes in the country, it’s just chains (in our interview, he clarifies that he now rates it as one of the best).
After uni, he starts working in recruitment, which is fine, but doesn’t exactly make him want to turn somersaults — he wants to do something more creative. Eventually, he starts filming food reviews for YouTube, with a focus on halal restaurants: “not many people celebrate halal food, or review halal food when, like, the biggest thing for Muslims is that we're so food centric. So I was like, why not?” On a whim, he takes a look to see what other YouTubers are doing on spicy chicken burgers in Manchester. These burgers are exclusive to the city, and hugely popular with its Muslim community. Yet, when Ali searches it, he draws a blank. He tries Google: nothing. “I found that strange because everyone in Manchester knows how good this is, and no one else even knows, it’s weird. It was strange that it wasn’t already on the internet.”
He goes down to Philadelphia’s in Cheetham Hill and films his first spicy chicken burger review and scores 20,000 views, even though at this point, he only has 50 subscribers.
Perhaps this isn’t that surprising. Ali has a gift that not every person in the world has, which is business acumen, and the knack for prophecy that tends to come with it. He keeps making spicy chicken burger reviews and it becomes a sort of magic. He starts a TikTok, and when he says a chicken shop makes an incredible spicy chicken burger, the queues start multiplying.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the place he crowns one of the top three chicken burgers in Manchester: Miami Crispy, in Burnage. Previously, the customers have mostly been locals, and it’s been busy for years. It’s easy to see why. Even now, with food prices soaring, they do a full meal — huge burger, chips, drink — for under a fiver. But suddenly you’ve got people coming from all over, from Birmingham, from Liverpool, and according to Ali, from as far away as Australia and America.
Now there are serious queues. During Ramadan, some people claim they stand in line for up to two hours for a burger. The owners of the shop are shrouded in secrecy and, like a lot of the information and rumours that swirl about Manchester’s chicken shop scene, word-of-mouth reigns supreme. “The thing with Miami Crispy is they're a bit of a mystery,” says one local reviewer. “No one really knows who runs it.”
One Wednesday night, it’s as busy as usual but we only meet one out-of-towner, from Walsall, near Birmingham, who was coming up to Blackpool and then made a detour to Manchester just for a Miami Crispy burger after hearing about it on social media. Another guy says he drives there twice a week from Ashton Under Lyne, and last Sunday he waited almost two hours but seems to have reached a state of equanimity about the queue (“Was it worth the wait?” “110%”). Not everyone’s such a fan. Keija Mariam, 20, is a rare voice of dissent: “I did think I was going to have an orgasm to the point where I'd need A&E to help me, but no.” (An industry professional is more scathing: “It’s like heartburn in a bun”).
We push a third interviewee, Bilal, 23, about the experience of waiting, asking whether he’d ever sack it off and go to the takeaway next door, he throws a look of chilly disgust.
“No, no, no, no. C'mon. You've got to pay respects to Miami's. Know what I mean? There's a reason why there's so many people waiting. It's got something that nobody else has got.”
Which is what, exactly? Nobody knows what’s in it, but everyone agrees: it’s all about the secret sauce. The sauce that the burger is dipped in after it is fried is what makes it so special.
These secret sauces, whose recipes are fiercely guarded — “these guys don’t even tell their wives, their mothers, what is in the sauce,” Ali tells me — are apparently variations on an original recipe created in the 90s. This “mother sauce” was invented at Kansas Fried Chicken, a franchise with shops dotted around Manchester and Oldham. The original sauce had a soft curry flavour and a mild spice to it — think Katsu. “The guy who created it, all we know is his name was Doctor,” says Riz Zeb, 41, an ex chicken shop worker who has been part of the business for decades. “Everyone called him Doctor.”
Doctor’s death, sometime around 2010 — although even that, somehow, remains apocryphal in this misty origin story — meant the original recipe was passed on to his staff. The staff broke off to open their own shops. From there, as staff left one shop to form another, the sauce evolved, mutated. Some are closer to the original, leaning more on flavours of curry and less on spice. The sauce at Miami Crispy is the result of a different evolutionary track, with more focus on chilli and spice. “Somehow, we don’t know how, the sauce got from Kansas to Miami’s,” says an insider.
As these shops have gone viral with the help of reviewers like Ali, the value of their sauces has skyrocketed. “I’ve heard rumours of places being offered £100,000, £150,000 for a sauce recipe,” says Ali who, on top of working as a reviewer, now acts as a consultant to these shops, helping them develop recipes and draw up social media strategies. “Some of these places are turning over £45,000 a week. So when you think of it like that, £150,000 is pretty low.”
For context, in January 2023, Manchester’s second biggest export was electrical motor parts. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, the industry made £290,000. Those with knowledge of Manchester’s top chicken shops say that’s less than what two are making a month. Shake Bee, in Levenshulme, made £10,000 in two days during Eid.
Rumours beget more rumours, and the ones surrounding the sauce are no different. “I was in the queue once at Miami’s…” says Joe McGrath, a local food reviewer for a TikTok account called Food Review Club. He heard the recipe at Miami’s has been sold to other chicken shops within Manchester. Another rumour is that a Miami Crispy staff member left to open another restaurant called Shake Bee, in Levenshulme, and took the recipe with him. When I ask about that in Shake Bee, I’m told he only worked the till for a few weeks.
One insider, who asked to remain anonymous due to the “beef” that exists amongst competing shops, tells me the reality may be a mix of the two. Apparently, this is the way it works. Instead of buying recipes, shops buy staff, kind of like Premier League transfers. “Recipes don’t get sold, they get moved.” He tells me to imagine I’m working at a viral chicken shop and “someone says: ‘right mate, I’ll give you £10,000, you come with me, I’ll put you on £600 a week, happy days.’ So, you go over, you’ve got your ten grand, you work there a couple of months and you have a big falling out with the boss. So then you get some investors together and open another shop two doors away,” and so the chicken shop wars rumble on.
Stakes are made higher by a consumer base turned borderline neurotic by reviewers who microscopically examine these burgers. They’re all pretty simple things: a chicken fillet, double battered, dipped in sauce and served between a bun with mayo and lettuce, but “if someone changes their oil, they change their chips, they get a bit of a bad reputation and that really affects them,” says Ali. “The reality is with these small changes, if a reviewer goes in and notices, and other people notice it, it creates a trend and that shop can’t recover.” Allegiances to these shops have become so tribal that they’re being compared to supporting United or City.
And this obsession is set to spread, the spicy chicken burger is beginning to move out of Manchester. Until recently, it was exclusive to the city region, with reviewers coming from Birmingham and London to try it. But “Manchester-style” chicken burgers are cropping up more and more down south, and people are looking to cash in.
One day during the pandemic, Riz — the chicken shop lifer — was scrolling TikTok. Every other video, or multiple videos on the trot, were of spicy chicken burgers. Ali and a network of other food influencers were showing cross sections of impossibly juicy chicken fillets to the camera, shaking their heads and dramatically rolling their eyes. “I was like: spicy chicken burger, spicy chicken burger, spicy chicken burger, spicy chicken burger” says Riz, pretending to scroll through his phone as we eat, you guessed it, spicy chicken burgers. “... spicy chicken burger, spicy chicken burger, and then: Andrew Tate.”
Andrew Tate, the viral misogynist and mixed martial artist, got big on TikTok over the pandemic. Mostly, Tate talked to a subset of young, disaffected men about how to be an “alpha male” but on this occasion he was talking about business. Riz had always been interested in business, his dad is an entrepreneur. Tate was talking about how you should follow the money, the hype, be in the markets that money is already flowing into. “It’s a cliché,” says Riz, “but I was like: oh shit, he’s speaking to me, he’s telling me I need to commercialise the sauce. I mean, everybody wants it, there’s so much hype around it, let’s just do it.”
So he and a business partner did. They started Lefke Spices last July, selling spice mixes that chicken shops would just have to mix with water. Manchester shops, however, were not overjoyed at the prospect of someone selling a just-add-water alternative of their pride and joy. “People were not happy at all, we had to have some conversations with the business owners, it’s a small community.” The result of those conversations was that Riz wouldn’t sell his spice mix to anyone in Greater Manchester, he would be an export service to the midlands and the south of England.
It would be fair to say business is booming. Shops he supplies can either agree to say they are using his spice blend or just not say anything, giving the impression it’s their own secret recipe. One of these latter shops in Birmingham was recently named the city’s best by a prominent reviewer, much to Riz’s secret joy. He’s delivering a minimum of 80 kg of spice — going for £1,200 — to shops all over the country, and has already had inquiries from the US.
And these shops are desperate for it. On Thursday, Riz and his Lefke business partner were supposed to deliver an order to a shop in Leicester, and show them how to make the sauce. It feels like that bit in Breaking Bad where Jesse has to show the cartel in Mexico how to make Heisenberg’s meth, and Riz does genuinely worry about the big blue gallon barrels they deliver the spice mix in making him look like he’s carting drugs across county lines.
Anyway, the Leicester shop had some mechanical issues in their kitchen and the delivery got called off. They asked if Riz could deliver the next day, in time for an influencer event they were hosting ahead of launch. He couldn’t. They turned up at his door that night to take it back to Leicester themselves.
“The spicy chicken burger is going to go all over the country,” says Ali. “Once it gets to London it’ll go bigger, then probably international. I know some of these brands are already thinking of going to Dubai and the US with spicy chicken burgers.” He’s had people from McDonald’s calling about partnerships — he wouldn’t work with them, they’re not halal — and gets “probably 20 messages a day” from reviewers in London asking about spicy chicken burgers.
Outside Miami Crispy one evening, it’s pretty quiet: only a 40-minute wait. The windows look like they’re sweating, steamed up from the number of people waiting inside. Three guys get done arguing about whose idea it was to drive here from Rochdale, and begin debating the finer points of Miami’s competition. Cluck ‘A’ Rito, in Stretford, is more of a gourmet option. Shake Bee has a spicier burger and Philadelphia’s has a slightly saltier sauce. But on the whole, to use the parlance of our times, Philly’s has fallen off.
Through the heated cabinet, window yellowed and smudged with grease, you can see the figures of the workers. Maybe eight guys, moving balletically around one another to a chorus of popping grease. Outside, a man leans against the corrugated shutters of a neighbouring unit and inspects his order ticket, he’s no.45 in the queue. A friend comes over and they greet each other.
“Ah, so you’re here?”
“No better place to be.”
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