From its terrace, Cardigan Bay sparkles in the sun and the mountains of Snowdonia loom majestically in the distance. Seabirds dot the mudflats and if you’re lucky a pod of dolphins might surface in the distance as you dine on some of the best food North Wales has to offer.
To work slavishly in the background will be a married couple living the dream. James and Carron Noon’s life may be hectic and frenetic, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.
They run the small teahouses at Mickey’s Boat Yard in Abersoch on the Llŷn Peninsula. It’s a passion project almost sunk by Covid that quickly turned into a must-visit restaurant that was applauded by locals and visitors alike.
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Last week, the ‘trendy beach food’ cafe won another feather in its cap when it was named one of Wales’ top 100 attractions by the travel guide of the same name. In just over two years, it has gone from a nightmare of confinement to a real gourmet destination.
For supporters and regular customers, the price had a downside. “The “hidden gem” is no longer a secret!” was the consensus opinion on Facebook.
James, 37, was thrilled with the designation. “It’s a validation of what we’re trying to achieve here,” he said. “We want to showcase the best local produce in North Wales and it has been such a passion for us for so many years now.”
Originally from London, their roots are not in food but in music. Carron, 39, was a West End singer and theater performer, while James produced music and wrote songs for the BBC and others.
Their only ties to Gwynedd were his parents’ boat housed in Porthmadog and their membership of the town’s yacht club. As often as they could, Carron and James would venture from Big Smoke to Snowdonia and in 2015, while picnicking on Tryfan, they had a eureka moment.
“We were at a crossroads in our lives,” James said. “It was a risk to lift the sticks and move to North Wales. But we had a love of food and dreamed of opening a tea room or a restaurant.
From the start, they were determined to fit in. As Carron made money singing in local pubs and clubs, and James on construction sites, they researched food producers in the area to form the beginnings of a menu.
The couple started out selling pies and cakes at Porthmadog Yacht Club. From there they graduated to a mobile cafe, created from a converted horse-drawn van dubbed the “Little Tea Tin”. Their ground, on Abererch Beach near Pwllheli, was a tough gig, but word of their gourmet burgers and other goodies soon spread.
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Three years ago, they reached another crossroads. The couple’s son, Monti, is born, reinforcing the need to step up the business. Hearing that Mickey’s Boat Yard was selling its cafe site, they emailed the owners asking if they might consider renting it out instead. They agreed. “We met for talks in the winter of 2019-20 with Monti bawling in the background,” James laughed.
“For us, this could not have been a better location, a destination site at the end of the beach. It was a perfect platform to start showcasing the best of local and Welsh food.
“The views are spectacular and it’s a good place to see dolphins and marine wildlife. Abersoch’s old lifeboat is nearby and its hold attracts all kinds of fish to feed on.
The couple signed a one-year lease from mid-March 2020. Within two weeks of opening, the UK was on lockdown. Their cherished dream could have ended there.
“It was a bit of a panic,” recalls James. “We had invested everything we had in the business and without customers it was in jeopardy. Fortunately, the shipyard owners were extremely understanding and forgiving with the rent.
They took advantage of the unplanned break to tidy up the premises and introduce social distancing measures. When the teahouse finally opened that summer, lines lengthened around the block for “Mickey’s Beach Cafe” – the old name that regulars still use. “It was a bit of a shock to the system!” says Jacques.
That year, Carron and James managed three months of trading, just enough to get by. But, armed with a new five-year lease, the business took off in 2021.
The kitchen equipment has been upgraded in two converted shipping containers that sit behind the cafe’s boathouse service area: the place comes with its own boat lift. The couple also added ice cream and coffee bars and, in high season, began to employ up to 30 people.
The tea room’s menu belies its take-out license: all dishes and items are served in biodegradable packaging with wooden cutlery, as the company has a strong anti-plastic philosophy. In other respects the food is restaurant quality.
Inevitably, sandwiches, wraps, toast and salads predominate, but it’s also possible to get a full Welsh breakfast with bacon and sausages from meat wholesaler Cigoedd y Llain. Another meat supplier, until its recent demise, was Oinc Oink of Llithfaen.
Customers range from locals and vacationers to well-heeled second-home owners. James and Carron are well aware of Abersoch’s gentrified reputation, but they aim to put together a menu that caters to all tastes and price points.
“We offer gourmet food, but we have a wide range of customers and we want to please everyone,” James said. “We’re not trying to be too upscale because it’s a fabulous place and we want to share it with everyone.”
The success brought some frustrations. The terms of the license mean the cafe can only operate for eight months a year, making it difficult to employ full-time staff. In the current climate, finding seasonal staff is a challenge facing all hospitality businesses.
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James and Carron take advantage of the off-season to seek out new local food suppliers and incorporate them into the menu for the coming year. New for this season, for example, the Calon Lân chutneys served with the Welsh Rarebit from thelittletearoom.
Still, as the length of the tourist season lengthens, the ability to open year-round would be preferable, especially in an area where many second homes are occupied out of season. It’s something the couple are considering. They will need planning permission and the key may be the provision of toilets: currently the tea room lacks facilities and customers have to use the public toilets in a nearby car park. As these are closed during the winter, the tea room must do the same.
On Tuesday Monti turned three and the family celebrated with a distinguished train ride to Maentwrog. The company’s journey was a bit quicker and with a few bumps in the way, going from a take-out van on a secluded beach to becoming a famous outlet on the ‘Welsh Riveria’.
- thelittletearooms (Mickey’s Beach Cafe) is located on Machroes Beach, Abersoch, LL53 7EU. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., from March to October.
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