If you find yourself trotting across a little wooden bridge at Shambala into the relaxing Healing Meadows you may well stumble across the delight that is The Cake Hole.
The instantly recognisable dome tent with a wonderfully colourful inside and a simultaneously out-of-place and incredibly fitting chandelier, has become a festival staple and a welcome site for many a weary festival goer in need of a delicious pick me up (myself included). I sat down with Annette to find out more about the festival favourite that is The Cake Hole.
How did The Cake Hole begin?
We began as a wellness area back in 1999. We had a small Bedouin tent for it then, a gas ring and an old army field oven that you ran either ran by digging a hole and building a fire underneath and you managed it all with flaps, or you put guttering underneath it and again managed the heat with flaps. We hadn’t got any money so everything had to be very basic; there were no frills. We didn’t have to have a floor down, we didn’t have to have a fridge, you just ‘did it’ in those days! Then we moved into the dome in Bishop’s Court Palace to do an old blues festival (we got that by accident). We didn’t pay a pitch fee because somebody already paid it and dropped out so that sort of gave us the capacity to buy a van that the equipment could fit in. So we only started with £300 and I wanted to do something during school holidays because my daughter was at school. I’d done qualifications in catering when I left school so it was like ‘let’s do it.’ But before that, going further back and I couldn’t tell you what year it was, a friend of mine said ‘do you want to run a café at Glastonbury?’ And I went ‘yeah I’ll give it a go!’ Never having been, never having done anything like that before, other than I’d only worked in factory canteens and hotels and things, but I got the bug and that was it really!
You only do festivals, has that been an intentional choice over the years. Of course you started with festivals but what is it you like about festivals compared to having a bricks and mortar café for example?
Challenge basically. Every time you go somewhere it’s a challenge, it’s never the same even when you go to a festival you’ve been to before you don’t know if the toilets or the generators are going to mess up your pitch and you’ll have to work round it. It’s always a challenge. I would have at one time, maybe when I was younger, liked a café or something like a tearoom, but we could never afford it. I was always too scared to take out a massive loan so with this we were able to build it year by year. So we never got into debt, we just plodded on slowly which is what we’ve been doing for 20 years I suppose!
That sounds perfect to me, your business is still growing but within a space that fits you. Sometimes I think people think that’s ‘clipping the wings of ambition’ but it’s not if its growth at your pace. Now you can think, ‘what can we do this year that we couldn’t afford last year?’ rather than borrowing money to get there quicker.
Yeah that’s too scary for me. We bought a coffee machine the year before last, paid for it outright and it’s been great. It’s a gas one and it works on the electric, on solar power, it’ll work on a big gas cylinder and it’ll churn coffee out all day. So that was our big purchase the other year and before that we had new gas pipes which cost a lot, but that’s what we’ve been doing bit by bit. There’s so many of us needed to do what we do though. We only make cakes, teas, coffee and chai, we’ve got to put that dome up and it’s got a flipping chandelier in the middle! It’s not like you just pull up and it’s all done!
But it’s great when you’re in a field and you walk into your tent and see that! Many a year at Shambala I’ve walked in and admired the tent. but now I work in and around the industry I’ve got a better appreciation of how much effort that must be. When you’re a punter you think ‘oh it’s really pretty,’ when you’re a bit more in the know you think ‘this must be a lot to do.’
I mean it’s sort of what people look for now with us! But it’s 60 odd poles in that dome and I have to get them out of the shed and load them into the lorry and I can only carry two at a time! We can put it up really quickly now though, it’s old fashioned canvas so it’s quite heavy but it’ll stand up in every weather really and it’s only once that we’ve ever had a problem with the weather with it and that was during a storm.
You want to know that your tent is going to stand up to the elements and if your business is festival focused then for summer in England you can’t just have a fair-weather tent because we do not have fair weather! You offer a wide range of gluten free options, has that always been important to you?
Years ago we used to do Trowbridge Village Pump Festival and a lady came in the café who said she hadn’t had cake for years. She explained what her intolerances were and I went off to the supermarket in Trowbridge and got some gluten free flour and did a few experiments that day and made her a ginger cake. It was the first cake that she’d had for years and years and years and she cried and it was so nice to see this lady enjoy a piece of cake. So that’s where it started really. I used to have an industrial kitchen in the end of my garden as well and that was completely gluten free. We did farmers markets in Truro and Plymouth and worked with the Celiac Society in Plymouth to get to know what was needed, what was required, how to go about it and all that stuff. That was really informative and really interesting. Sometimes people will come into the café and tell me they’re intolerances and I’ll make them a cake. There’s lots of people who can’t tolerate starch, people who can’t tolerate soy or various other ingredients. I can usually work round it and produce something.
That’s some creative baking! You were at Glastonbury this year as well as WOMAD and Shambala. Are they your set festivals each year or are there other festivals as well?
We’ve been going to Glastonbury for years because the crew wanted to go! Whether they got paid or not they wanted to go so that was the incentive for doing it, especially in the early years when we went because we just didn’t know what we were going to find. But yes, WOMAD and Shambala are definites every year. We’ve been asked to join the Big Love team up in Usk and we used to work with Tribe of Doris and for years we did the Village Pump Festival in Trowbridge. We don’t do a lot of festivals, we don’t do week in week out because to be blunt, it can depend on what people are ‘partaking in’ when it comes to whether they want cake. Family events, folk festivals and Shambala are all good cake eaters! The Acoustic Stage were brilliant cake eaters! Depending on the bands they have on we could be stacked up for 10 hours but it is also definitely dependent on what people choose to partake in.
That’s undeniably a testament to how well you know the industry! There are so many things that you have to factor in when preparing for a festival in order to make a profit. For traders who have been around for a while and done a fair few festivals, they also know that there’s other things that the books don’t explicitly tell you about that can impact any profits. Do you run The Cake Hole either side of the festival season?
No, I sort of wrap it up [after the season]. We’ll be doing the books and that sort of thing for the next couple of months but I start project managing for Shambala again just after Christmas. I put the meadow together and that takes me right through to the end of May basically. Oh we’ve been doing an event called Camp Quirky as well which is earlier in the year, so we’ll squeeze that in, but between now and Camp Quirky we won’t do anything with the café. I’ll service the stuff that’s in the back of the lorry though!
A lot of people like that appeal though don’t they, that either side of the festival period is very quiet despite a busy summer. It’s like the reverse of a teacher’s schedule isn’t it! When we spoke at WOMAD you mentioned that your daughter had been with you for every Shambala bar one or two, has it been a family operation from the very beginning?
She was 5 when she first came and at that age they want to serve on the counter and play shop! She was only small when she first came and she’s grown into it over the years. I don’t know if it’s done her any favours to be quite honest! It’s very disruptive. She’s at university now and doesn’t need me going ‘Lauren what do you think about this for the café?!’ It’s very disruptive to normal life, you have your normal life at home and then your field life. You’ve got to put on your gloves and load the lorry and that sort of thing, but she’s been doing that since she was little.
I suppose if that’s your ‘normal’ though you’re almost used to it. It’s of course very disruptive but you get used to the disruption because you know it’s ‘that time of year’ again where the chaos descends!
Yeah! And you look forward to meeting up with people you haven’t seen since last year, both friends that you’ve made coming to events and the other crew and caterers that are with you. We’ve met some really nice people through doing The Cake Hole. Both people who come and volunteer to work for us and people we’ve worked next door to or across the field and swapped cake for curry and that sort of thing!