I moved to Manchester for a boy, and to set up You Say Potato. I would be lying if I said it was the other way round. But I’ve been lucky that Manchester has welcomed me with open arms and expectant bellies.
I had already decided to live with my boyfriend when I became obsessed with meals-on-wheels, or, as the Eat Street website describes it, “this edible street theatre that is as old as time itself”. I wanted in. But I’m no chef and I’ve never worked in a kitchen before, let alone run a food business. And there were so many other question marks: how do I fund the start up, how do I go about buying and converting a catering van, how do I (gasp!) drive anything bigger then a ford fiesta?
And then there were the inevitable questions surrounding the Manchester food scene. In London, street food is firmly established and run by grown-ups with great business sense as well as brilliant food ideas. The successes of businesses like Meat Liquor, Pizza Pilgrims and so many others who started out selling their wares from the pavement and now have four walls is proof that London was hungry for something different. But what about Manchester?
But my journey really began long before I decided to move to Manchester; it started when I was working at an agency in Soho looking after media talent. To begin with, I was very good at bringing a packed lunch but, as time went on, I got lazy and like most of my colleagues I began to ‘nip out to buy a sandwich’. Once I’d exhausted all of the M&S meal deal options, I moved onto Prêt, then Eat, and then there was that lovely expensive deli round the corner that did flatbreads, and for a while I was very naughty and had burritos…then my colleague suggested we share a gargantuan spud from a little café around the corner and that’s when I realised the humble spud had not been popularised like most lunch options. We shared at least one jacket potato a week, and it was the only lunchtime option that didn’t cost the earth and which filled me up. So, when I bought my van a year and a half later, I knew I would be fitting a potato oven in the back.
Moving to Manchester three months ago was when the really hard work began. I wasn’t just starting my first business, I was also trying to learn about a new city and what makes its office workers – and my target customers – tick. My first impression was that Mancunians operate at an entirely different pace to Londoners; there’s more time to stop and smell the roses, but with that comes a greater expectancy for quality.
I had to turn the questions I was asking my friends and family – actually anyone that would listen – on myself. As a customer, what would I look for in a food van? I realised it was great deal more than just a good quality meal, although of course that’s a prerequisite. It needed to look good. The van and the food. And it needed to offer the customer an experience that would otherwise be missing from their day. With these factors in mind I went about creating You Say Potato.
When I went to my first Manchester Food Festival, I was excited to find the street food scene was thriving, and there was an altogether different offering of fares to London. As the brightly painted vans buzzed with activity and the punters peered over counter tops to deliberate on options, I knew that You Say Potato should – and would – be a Northern start up.
So, what’s my point? That Manchester is a great place to start a food business? At this stage I can’t comment on how successful You Say Potato will be, but what I can say is that people have sat up, tucked their napkins into their shirts, and taken notice. Friends of friends, fellow foodies and future suppliers have all taken me seriously. It turns out that everyone has an opinion when it comes to food, and jacket potatoes are no exception, crossing divides between healthy and calorific, veggie and meaty, classic and posh.
So, in summary, I would say that if you were in any doubt, do it in the North.
By Cara McVean
You Say Potato starts trading in mid-November in Manchester. The location will be revealed soon so follow Cara on twitter to keep up to date: @yspmanchester. Log onto www.yousaypotato.co.uk for more information.