On the first warm day of the year, smoke billows out of the trailer on Upper Chorlton Road, the layby spot next to the Sharon Pentecostal Church where Kool Runnings is always, comfortingly, parked up. If it disappears for any amount of time, as it did after Christmas until it turned up again just a few weeks ago, people start to panic.
The first van was much smaller than this, half the size. But even this one is snug, considering the volume of food that comes out of it, its owner Aval Saunders cooking with his son Dominic – virtually on top of each other.
The queue – there’s a queue most of the time – comprises two young lads, who retreat to their lowered hatchback parked on the pavement to eat jerk chicken, rice and peas (no steamed veg, extra gravy), both doors flung open, the bass from the sound system gently vibrating the metal rivets on the truck.
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There’s an extremely polite bodybuilder, as short as he is wide, bursting out of his vest and getting a full half of a smokey, grilled chicken for his post workout sustenance. He takes the offer of salad. “Big meal for a big man,” jokes Dominic. He looks like he could lift the van off the ground with one hand and still eat his plantain with the other.
There’s a smart gentleman in office attire with his laptop bag, two girls who have just finished work, and a toddler with her mum and dad. She wants a carrot juice.
Aval has fed judges from the city courtrooms, as well as various celebrities. Usain Bolt, Tyson Fury, Sergio Agüero, Andy Cole, Rio Ferdinand. Ainsley Harriot once too. “People come back because they appreciate what they get, maybe,” he shrugs, not really sure what the fuss is about.
Famous, not-so-famous, Aval feeds them all, and has done so since 1998, when, spurred on by the family work ethic that you should always work for yourself, he quit working at someone else’s Caribbean takeaway and set up on his own.
Prior to that, he’d worked as a security guard in the Moss Side precinct. He raised the money to start Kool Runnings by ‘doing without’. “Just worked and saved. A lot. One pair of shoes, ”he says, with a smile. “Just do without.”
At 53, he still works an average of 18 hours a day, and always has. He’s up at 6am, and is often still cleaning down at midnight, depending on how busy the day has been. He works until the food has all gone. He can not abide waste.
This propensity for hard graft comes from being raised on his parents’ 150 acre working farm in Clarendon, Jamaica. They had cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and grew sugarcane. He was only planning to come to England for a holiday, but he ended up staying, getting his resident’s visa and marrying.
His wife Beverley runs their other business, the takeaway shop and prep-kitchen in Longsight, where they live. They have seven boys together.
“If you can not live spirit work together, then you can not live together! ” he laughs. “It’s not that difficult. You should get on with each other! You need to. In the lockdown, in six months, none of us left the house. We did not have one argument, no altercation. What for? ”
He was never really worried about how lockdown would pan out. “At some point, people have got to eat to stay alive,” he laughs. It actually gave him a chance for much-needed rest, he says, and let him spend time with the family.
As well as Dominic, still serving up a few meters away from us in the van, another of his boys, Ez, who trained as a barrister, has followed in his footsteps too. He started his own place, The Drop, in Chorlton in 2015.
When I ate there soon after it had opened, it was a plate of food I did not want to end. He then went on to open the superb Pull Up on Swan Street, so you can see where he gets his chops from.
“The cooking comes partly from my mother, and partly self taught,” says Aval. His mother was of Indian heritage, so had a slightly different approach to cooking than the traditional Caribbean, and he says some of it is still there in his spicing.
As for the jerk chicken, the thing that shifts the most at Kool Runnings, he’s pretty casual about what it involves. He’s pretty casual full stop. “Just marinade it and throw it on the grill till it’s smoked,” he says. The marinade involves his ‘own spicing’, but there’s ginger, garlic, scotch bonnets, thyme, sage, pimento (allspice) in there.
But however casual the description, Aval’s chicken has been perfected over a quarter of a century and you can taste every year of it. The smoke is deep, and the jerk gravy is fiery and sharp, the stalks of the thyme leaves left in so you know it’s the real deal.
The salt fish fritters are doughy and salty and delicious, as is the oxtail. When he started with the van, it was just fried chicken, not jerk, so that has serious pedigree too, all crisp, spiced and seasoned outside, the chicken perfectly steamed inside. It’s the most comforting of comfort food.
But like everyone else, Aval is feeling the pinch. Everything, from the oil he fries his plantain in, to the chicken that goes onto the grill or into the brown stew, has gone up. “With inflation, things are going through the roof,” he says.
“Chicken has gone from £ 70 to £ 100 this week, for 20 kilos. I’ve never seen that before. It’s difficult to hand onto the customers every week. Two pound goes on here, two pound goes on there. You can not do that. These are people who have supported you over the years, so you have to absorb some of it somewhere.
“You can not turn the lights off when there’s no customer here, and turn them back on when there is, so that’s a cost. You can not turn the gas on and off, so that’s a cost.
“If I wanted to employ someone now, I’d really have to think twice. Where’s the money going to come from? You can not have less quality in the product, but also, you need to survive.”
Aval has seen things change in the city. When he started out in 1998, Manchester was gripped by gang and gun crime, but despite being out on the street in his van, night in and night out, he never experienced any trouble.
“It was quite rough,” he admits. “Quite rough. But I never had any problems with anything. No guns, nothing like that. Sometimes I’d be here late, by myself, but never any problems. This is a community business, you see the same people over and over again. There’s no room for that disrespect.
“I do not come here for confrontation, I come here to work. And people always respected that, the young people respect that, ”he says. “And there’s even more respect now. They grew up with me. I fed them, fed their mums and their dads. It becomes friendship. ”
And it’s the same now. “Put it like this, I can not say that all this week a customer has been rude. And I can not remember one last week. You try to keep it respectful, and if people know you do not have an attitude, nine times out of 10, you do not get one back. I’m a grounded person. ”
But still, the pace at the van is enough for him, and he perhaps could not physically work any harder than he already does. He’s been asked to take his van around – to Parklife and the like – but he’s not really interested in all that, though he will cook for the church and for local community events, providing everything for free.
He was doing street food before the term was invented. Word of mouth and quality food, rather than clever marketing, has been what’s kept him in business since 1998.
“I remember a guy came here, just when I was starting out,” Aval says. “I was talking to Dominic about this only yesterday. He says to me ‘how well are you doing?’ And I said to him ‘come back in 25 years and ask me’. ” Next year, he can. And you just have to hope that he does.
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