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
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.”
Hayes Island Snack Bar owner Shani Worton, from Aberdare