HOW THIS ABER­DARE WOMAN BREATHED NEW LIFE INTO CAP­I­TAL LAND­MARK

The Hayes Is­land Snack Bar in Cardiff city cen­tre has been pro­vid­ing snacks and a place to re­lax since 1948. David Owens finds out more about the venue’s his­tory... and what the fu­ture has in store

Cynon Valley - - FRONT PAGE -

iT WAS the au­tumn of 2013 when a woman from the Val­leys plot­ted the fu­ture of one of the most fa­mous land­marks in Cardiff.

Back then Shani Wor­ton, from Aber­dare, and her hus­band Tom, were sat in Cosy Club, the restau­rant perched on the first floor at the cor­ner of St David’s in The Hayes.

From their lofty van­tage point they looked down on a fa­mil­iar sight to gen­er­a­tions of Cardif­fi­ans, a build­ing that has weath­ered the dic­tates of time – a con­stant in the eye of the storm of change.

it is also, for the thou­sands who visit it ev­ery year, a re­as­sur­ing oa­sis of tran­quil­lity – a mecca for tea, cof­fee and the sta­ple food­stuffs that have kept the city’s res­i­dents well fed for decades.

How­ever, five years ago it was a dif­fer­ent story. The fu­ture of the Hayes is­land Snack Bar was very much in doubt.

There were ru­mours of buy­ers, but ul­ti­mately noone was will­ing to take the plunge. un­til, that is, the fate­ful day when ev­ery­thing would change for the bet­ter.

inside the Hayes is­land Snack Bar the smells and sounds are un­mis­tak­able. At the heart of the ac­tion are the Hayes is­land Snack Bar’s long­est serv­ing staff – Gemma Re­gan, 32, who has worked there for 18 years, and Fran Davies, 31, who has put in a 15-year stint.

The gre­gar­i­ous pair tell me they’re like sis­ters, fir­ing off barbs and good­na­tured ban­ter at their reg­u­lars – and each other. While they might bicker and have the odd dis­agree­ment, there is one thing they are both in unan­i­mous agree­ment over – Shani has re­vived the for­tunes of the Hayes is­land Snack Bar.

“it was one day we were eat­ing in the Cosy Cafe on a Satur­day morn­ing and it looked bleak, tired and it needed a lit­tle bit of love,” re­calls Shani.

“i felt that we could give it that love, but it needed a ma­jor over­haul.”

Pos­sess­ing ab­so­lutely no ca­ter­ing ex­pe­ri­ence what­so­ever, Shani knew it was a risk but when she had an of­fer to buy the Hayes is­land Snack Bar ac­cepted, she set about her task with ab­so­lute en­thu­si­asm.

“My back­ground is in pur­chas­ing and lo­gis­tics” ex­plains the 47-year-old mum of two. “i was look­ing for an al­ter­na­tive to an of­fice role. i’m very chatty and cus­tomer fo­cused and i thought this would be a great chal­lenge to put some love and at­ten­tion into.”

She does, how­ever, read­ily ad­mit she took a chance on a brand new ca­reer that could have eas­ily fallen apart at the seams.

“i had to hit the floor run­ning,” she says. “in or­der to keep the fi­nance in place i had to keep my old job for a year be­fore i came here full time. At the be­gin­ning it was ex­haust­ing as i found my way, but now i’m so proud of what we have achieved. it still gives me great fo­cus and great en­thu­si­asm.

“But look­ing back it might have been a risk. How­ever, i wasn’t think­ing about that. i was just fo­cused on do­ing the best i could.”

Her drive and de­ter­mi­na­tion fired a def­i­nite vi­sion of what needed do­ing.

“it needed to have a cos­mopoli­tan feel,” she says.

“i think some peo­ple’s per­cep­tions were that it was an area for down and outs, we wanted to make it fam­ily ori­en­tated.

“The city is very vi­brant, it has many, many vis­i­tors. We felt this was a lit­tle bit of an eye­sore and we could im­prove it.”

As a listed build­ing, Shani isn’t al­lowed to change too much about the snack bar’s phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance but this didn’t stop her evolv­ing grand plans.

“We im­proved it by bring­ing out the flower boxes, putting canopies up, more seat­ing, new ta­bles and chairs to make it a far more pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence,” she says.

“We put up tele­vi­sions, bet­ter pic­tures and we also have the se­cu­rity grills which are in place at night. Pre­vi­ously the wooden shut­ters would be locked and they got dam­aged a lot.

“We clean it ev­ery morn­ing, mak­ing sure it’s a nice, clean en­vi­ron­ment to sit down with a tea or a cof­fee and watch the world go by.”

Shani also changed the menu to be able to serve a

wider range of food.

“Be­ing out­side we are be­holden to the weather. When it’s a dry day or a warm day, it’s fab­u­lous. The rough with the smooth is the win­ter when it’s cold and wet, al­though we do have the mas­sive canopies and there are heated lamps in the win­ter.

“How­ever, if peo­ple can see the changes and they think it’s a good ser­vice and a good price they are go­ing to come back. If we de­liver that, it works.”

And there’s no deny­ing that it has worked. In the five years since she took over, the Hayes Is­land has been com­pletely re­vi­talised, with a fish and chip out­let, noo­dle bar and newsagent kiosk keep­ing the snack bar com­pany.

And let’s not for­get the his­toric Grade II-listed Vic­to­rian toi­lets – the old­est in Wales, opened in 1898 and this year cel­e­brat­ing their 120th birth­day, which were sim­i­larly un­der threat and closed for a time but which are now also the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Shani and her staff.

“Cardiff coun­cil own the free­hold but we’ve the lease un­til 2037,” she says. “As part of the de­vel­op­ment of The Hayes, Cardiff coun­cil asked us to re­open and run the toi­lets for them. They were to­tally ren­o­vated in 2010, but un­for­tu­nately in 2013 had to close due to coun­cil aus­ter­ity mea­sures.

“As part of an al­ter­na­tive de­liv­ery plan and in or­der to help us fund the open­ing and the main­te­nance of the toi­lets which costs us £120,000 a year, we were al­lowed plan­ning per­mis­sion to have the three ex­tra units and they pay for the run­ning and the main­te­nance of the toi­lets which are free to use.

“The three units needed to be in keep­ing with the look of the Hayes,” she adds. “We wanted to put food within them and we thought the best would be the clas­sic fish and chips, we did have falafel in the other unit, but we didn’t do par­tic­u­larly well with that so we de­cided to go with noo­dles.”

The third and most re­cent ad­di­tion is the newsagents, for­merly a busi­ness in the Hayes that Shani threw a life­line to after it faced be­ing forced out due to spi­ralling rent.

“We’ve also now got the newsagents, Hayes News, which used to be one of the shops on the Hayes,” she ex­plains. “Un­for­tu­nately their rent was put up to a point where they couldn’t ac­tu­ally af­ford to run the busi­ness any more. So they asked if they could rent one of the units.”

Shani is acutely aware of the snack bar’s her­itage and its place in the heart of those who live in the city. All she need do is ask her hus­band Tom.

“My hus­band is from Cardiff and his mum and dad used to reg­u­larly come here for a cup of tea and a piece of thick toast,” she says. “For us there was a lot of nos­tal­gia and his­tory bound up here that we felt a lot of re­spon­si­bil­ity to main­tain.

“The plan is to keep in­vest­ing and re­gen­er­at­ing. We’ve got Christ­mas com­ing up and we’ll soon be trans­form­ing the snack bar along­side the Christ­mas mar­ket. I also want to main­tain that spirit we have here among the staff,” she adds.

“We started with three staff when I took over and we’ve now got 22. It’s like one big fam­ily. And we’re all very proud of the part we’ve played in keep­ing it alive.”

RICHARD WIL­LIAMS

Hayes Is­land Snack Bar owner Shani Wor­ton, from Aber­dare

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