The butcher of Moss Side
‘I just love it, you know?’
By Jack Dulhanty
If you’ve ever eaten curried goat in Greater Manchester, it was probably butchered by Aki Khan. On Friday morning, he stood on the raised platform lining the inside of his shop — Quality Halal Meats, on Claremont Road in Moss Side — wringing his hands with anticipation, so much that they began to rasp. The phone rang.
“Alright Paul, talk to me mate. Okay, yep. Four skin on, yes mate. Four skin off. 25 oxtail, yep, 15 chops, 20 steaks — you want any brisket? No? — okay 15 salt beef. Alright. Yep. I’ll drop it around about half 12.” He rounded up the order again, and then: “Alright, have a pleasant day.”
He put the phone down and his eyes followed the tip of his pen as it tapped down the list. He started wringing his hands again. “We’re gonna be hammered today.” He relayed the order to his colleague Khalid, who was dicing mutton on a chopping block about the size of a door. He and Bily, a new starter that day, trimmed the fat from the meat and flicked it into a red tray, then dropped the trimmed cubes into a blue tray.
“You see that?” Aki says, intercepting two of Khalid’s diced pieces of mutton and slapping them back on the board. “See how they shine?” The meat glistened under the lights. “That’s quality.”
Aki has been running Quality Halal Meat since 2004, but the business has been in Moss Side since 1968, first opened by his father, who is referred to only as Mr Khan. Mr Khan came to the UK from Pakistan in 1964 and worked at a butcher’s in London’s Brixton Market. The shop catered to the area’s Afro-Caribbean community, supplying specialty products like oxtail, chicken necks and mutton — while mutton can also refer to sheep, in this context (and for the remainder of this article) it refers to goat.
When Mr Khan moved to Manchester a few years later, he saw an opportunity to cater to the Afro-Caribbean community that had settled in Moss Side. He opened his butcher’s shop on Moss Side Market, moving to Claremont Road in 1998 after the market was cleared to make way for an Asda.
The shop offers the same products today, a niche that has ensured its success over the last fifty years. Especially with many local butchers closing, swallowed up by supermarket chains. They don’t do mince as a point of pride. If they had to keep using a mincing machine, Aki argues, they wouldn’t have time to chat to customers and provide a service. There are piles of tripe, ox liver cut into blocks, chicken necks and backs and goat’s feet. “This stuff is where the margins are,” Aki says, when he catches me staring at a tray of stiffened, mortified cow’s skin.
The shop has been able to remain a stalwart of the community by staying true to it and supporting it where it can. Mr Khan is said to have had one core principle: look after the customer first. Money was secondary. If someone didn’t have the cash, let them come and pay later, or just let them have it. The idea was that supporting the community this way would pay dividends later. “I’ll tell you a story about my dad,” Aki says in one of the shop's side rooms, where ceiling beams are printed with “mind your head, our prices are very low.”
Aki tells me about a law student who came into the shop in the 90s. He only had £5 and asked what he could get with it. Mr Khan gave him £30 worth of meat. David Modupe Ojo, now the Khan family’s solicitor, tells me: “you see his father, his father was like an angel. He’d give people credit without interest, if they were hungry he’d give them food. I was a beneficiary of that for a long time.”
The formula hasn’t changed, “if you come in here now with a fiver I’m going to make sure you leave here with eight, nine, ten quid’s worth of stuff,” Aki says. “Because times like now, there are a lot of people that don’t have money.”
Customers come from Gorton, Longsight, Salford, Liverpool. Aki tells me about one woman who comes each month in a taxi from Bradford. Why? Aki says the quality, the value, but also the service. There are plenty of places in Manchester and beyond selling mutton and oxtail, but Aki argues none of them sell it like him.
He is liquid behind the counter, chatting fluently to customers and staff as he weighs meat, takes calls and ties up bags like a children’s entertainer ties balloons. There’s a kind of theatricality to it, and it’s always capped off the same way: “have a pleasant day!”
Aki also clearly — undeniably — loves it. To the point where sometimes he will smile and, without prompt, say I just love it, you know? The money is good, the people are good, he’s established and knows what he is doing. I realise I’m watching one of those rare and lovely things: someone truly, happily, in their element.
The shop has Manchester’s mutton market in something of a chokehold. The same goes for the other cuts, like beef shin, which Aki distributes to other butchers around Greater Manchester, but at a price that stops them ever selling it as cheap as him. The shop supplies many of the Afro-Caribbean restaurants and takeaways in Greater Manchester (I’ve seen its books), as well as, Aki says, 80% of the stalls at the annual Manchester Caribbean Carnival.
It serves the entire spectrum of Moss Side’s community. “Whether you’re a takeaway, whether you’re a housewife, whether you’re selling stuff on the road, they all have to eat,” Aki says. “I’m friendly with a lot of people. Good people, bad people. Extra good people, extra extra bad people. There’s a lot of people behind me, basically.”
It’s difficult to speak to people about Moss Side without the conversation hewing towards the area’s difficult past. There is a criminal history that continues to cast a shadow over this part of town, even as parts of it gentrify, with certain tree-lined streets in the south of the neighbourhood becoming popular with staff from the nearby universities.
Aki grew up in the 80s, three streets away from Gooch Close, the birthplace of the Gooch Close Gang, an infamous organised crime group. “I walked through there every day to get to school. I’ve seen the good things, the bad things, the shootings, the killings.”
It’s nothing like it used to be, but the area continues to have issues with crime. A couple of years ago, Mill analysis of police crime data showed that Moss Side had the second highest homicide rate in Greater Manchester. The latest murder was a stabbing 11 days ago. I get the impression from Aki that, at times, a successful business like his can be treated with scepticism because of where it is based. In fact, it was raided by police in July, suspected of importing drugs.
Aki had been making deliveries in his personal car — a Range Rover that, he stresses, he has business insurance on — and reckons making deliveries of mutton in plastic bags to the homes and businesses of his clients must have looked a bit off. “With the police, I think it’s just — because we’re doing very well — we’re supplying places that are hotspots, not in a bad way, but it’s just— I don’t know why it was.” The raid on the shop didn’t find any evidence of drug importation, by the way.
Asim, one of Aki’s employees, is cutting mutton chops with a band saw. Khalid and Bily are still gliding through mutton with impossibly sharp knives, and customers and phone calls keep coming in. Aki is bagging up chicken wings for a kid who has been sent to get them for his mum. He’s coming back for some other stuff later. Aki knocks the £11.84 for the wings down to a tenner and says “when you come back I’ll just dash it all on one receipt for you.”
Many of the staff here have second jobs. Khalid, from Morocco, works in the Asda butcher’s when Aki’s is closed; Bily, from Nigeria, is a housekeeper at a hotel in the city centre; Mohammed, who is from Somalia and works in the back, is also a caretaker at a local school. Aki says his staff reflect the community, and between them can speak the first language of any customer that walks in. (A look at the 2021 census: in Moss Side West, where Aki’s shop is, 47.3% of the population identifies as Black, Black British/Welsh, African or Caribbean, with 15.9% identifying as Asian or Asian British/Welsh. Almost half the area’s population was born outside the UK).
As they pack up their knives and head to their other jobs, Aki smokes outside and it feels like every other car beeps at him. He waves and smiles — “I reckon if I went for councillor I’d blaze it, you know.” He talks with Michael, a staff member whose grandfather worked for Mr. Khan. On the window of the shop is a banner with pictures of different meats on it. One of the pictures is of mince and written over it in marker is an X and “no mince”.
Bily comes out and the three of them talk about the place he is living in, in Rusholme. It’s £600 a month and he needs to get his living costs down. He has a wife and a kid and is working two jobs, getting his role at Aki’s after mentioning in passing that he had experience in butchery when he was back home. He’s starting at the hotel at four so starts disappearing up Claremont, and Aki and Michael agree they need to keep their eye out for a room under £500 for Bily.
“They’re nice guys,” Aki says, back in the shop — Asim still band sawing bones in the background. “They’re all nice, including you,” he looks at me. “So, come in tomorrow at nine. Give us a hand!”