Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Angel of Harlem spreads her wings

Natalie Irvine meets Faye Rogers, a businesswoman on a mission to help young cancer sufferers
Natalie Irvine meets Faye Rogers, a businesswoman on a mission to help young cancer sufferers

Why do we feel flitting from pillar to post is a bad thing? Focusing on what you enjoy, rather than trying to enjoy what you focus on, is surely the best way to discover the very thing you need to focus on.

Spending half an hour with Faye Rogers in her newly-founded and ever so elegantly hip Harlem cafe on Bedford Street, convinced me that her method of ‘getting there’ really can reap the kind of rewards that sweep you off your feet.

Faye, I’m delighted to discover, is happy to delve in to the eclectic past that has brought her to this point. She explains: “I was born and raised in Omagh and didn’t move to Belfast until I was 18. I came here to model, but we all know you need to need to go further afield, to London, or at the very least Dublin, if you wish to make a successful living at it— but that choice wasn’t for me.

“I had my children quite young and was so glad I did, it made me cherish staying close to home all the more. But after a couple of years I just knew I wasn’t a ‘stay at home’ mum and began to think of things I wanted to do. I was always interested in art and so I decided to go to BIFHE (now Belfast Metropolitan College) to do a window dressing course. I absolutely loved that and soaked up everything it had to teach me, but after I completed the course, I soon discovered Belfast just wasn’t ready for a window dresser like me!”

Taking a look around the restaurant with its cleverly quirky choice of art and artifacts, I can’t help thinking to myself, ‘boy, did the window fronts of Belfast luck out on that one.’

However Faye tells me she didn’t let “Belfast not being ready”for her individual style thwart her vision, but served as a first step in developing her artistic fervour. She quickly decided to take the plunge and enroll on a fashion degree course at the University of Ulster.

“I knew I loved textiles and the window dressing course brought that out in me, so I decided to study a degree in fashion at UU, which was an experience I will never forget.

“I could make textiles, experiment with different materials you would never even think of when creating a fashion garment, you know, really turn things on their head.

“I completed the course with a head filled with a real passion for textiles and art, but then all my student friends left me to go further afield to make a name for themselves — and left me here!” she chuckles.

“Belfast unfortunately isn’t really the city where the fashion industry thrives. I kept myself busy after that and even embarked on a course as a beautician, I really did go from one thing to another trying to find something I could put my heart into.

“I definitely had no idea, at any stage, I was going to go into the catering business though! But I suppose, after a while, the idea of having a little coffee cart selling home made cakes and gorgeous coffee did begin to creep in. I began speaking to my husband about that idea and at that time that’s all it was — an idea.

“Then the recession hit and my husband, being in the property business, felt the impact. We both began thinking of ways to get through it, and then my husband called me one day when he was at work to tell me he had found a place for rent and I just had to take a look at it.

“When I saw it I just knew it was the place for me — even though I was only looking for a cart!

“I had no business or catering skills in the slightest, it was all new to me, and so I was asking a lot of myself to pull this off. But I had absolutely no doubt in my mind what I wanted the customer to experience — great coffee, delicious home-made food, a fantastic venue to dine and meet up with friends, and all wrapped up with |

excellent customer service.

“And I can’t say achieving all these things was easy when we first opened, I am the first to admit there were things we got wrong in the first month, but we all persevered — my chef and I looked at menus again, in fact I don’t think my chef or me had any sleep at all in the first month we opened!

“We looked at ways to improve the service, get things right and make it so people want to come in again and develop a rapport |with us.

“It’s thanks to the fiercely loyal customers we have had from those early days too. The staff who work at the BBC and Invest NI across the road have all been brilliant and very supportive of us — we very much appreciate all the local businesses for sticking with us!”

Almost a year in the trade, business is booming and Faye is grateful — though admits there’s not much downtime. She does though, make sure she takes the time to walk her three French bulldogs every morning, adding: “There’s no better way to start the day and get everything clear in in my mind.”

The Holywood lifestyle agrees with Faye immensely, allowing her to be close to work and wake up to her beloved coastline every morning. “It can’t get any better,” she says.

The topic moves on to her life as a hostess again after a customer politely interrupts us to give Faye a heartfelt thank you for a previous function she has organised.

When I ask Faye what makes a great hostess, Faye reveals to me she has a few secrets up her sleeves — one being a board behind the counter with names and a small brief on all her newest regulars. It allows her to never fail when putting a name to a face, and “it doesn’t hurt to know that little something extra” to strike up meaningful and pleasant conversation in her busy Belfast bistro.

Those incredible lengths Faye goes to make her city customers feel right at home are only dwarfed by one thing — the distances she is prepared to go to fundraise for her beloved charity, the Teenage Cancer Trust.

A crippling spinal injury she incurred not five years ago (after falling off a horse whilst out riding — one of her favourite pastimes) has failed to deter Faye trekking through Amazonian rainforest to Himalayan mountainous terrain for her charity — I did tell you she brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘flitting from pillar to post.’

Faye fundraises all year around to ensure every NHS hospital in the UK has specialist units which improve the quality of life and chances of survival for teenagers and young adults with cancer.

She explains: “When I heard the survival rates of teens who receive their cancer treatment at normal cancer units, where they’re either placed with really young children or really old people, I was shocked.

“It has a devastating effect on their psychological well-being and the statistics of their survival rates speak for themselves. Placed in a specialised unit with people their own age increases their chances of survival by at least 20 per cent.

“Having two children who are young adults now, has really hit home to me how lucky I am, so I have signed up to fundraise until all NHS hospitals have these specialist units.”

Faye is altogether unforgiving of Harlem when it comes to raising money for charity, delighting customers and staff alike who thoroughly enjoy the many mad-cap fund raising activities their hostess brings.

But for the ‘angel of Harlem’, “sure, it’s just all in a day’s work.”

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