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Please let them eat cake; Success is sweet for Meg Rivers' cake empire, says Finola Lynch.

Meg Rivers posts cakes for a living. They just happen to be posted all over the world.

It is a business which began in the mixing bowls on her Warwickshire parsonage kitchen table 10 years ago and today boasts 15,000 customers worldwide, a staff of 20, two tea rooms and a large bakery.

Sitting in her quaint tea room in Shipston-on-Stour with its little tables covered in white tablecloths, it is difficult to imagine how international her reputation is.

But the strikingly tall and elegant woman who greets me as I sip light, cafetiere coffee is every inch the cool, professional businesswoman with her eye firmly on the enterprising ball. Another giveaway is her soft Australian accent, her homeland until she moved to Britain in 1973.

It all began back in the mid 1980s when faced with the prospect of raising three children on her own in a parsonage in South Warwickshire, she looked at ways she could make an income.

She did not have to look very far. Meg's mother had run a tea shop and she traces her love of food and especially baking to that time.

"I was always baking because I enjoyed it so much and people who knew about it were always asking me to bake cakes for special occasions.

"Before I knew where I was, I was charging a little money for them and encouraged by my friends, I started to think of it as a viable business proposition.

"The product I had to sell was too expensive to be sold through the shops but when I was asked to send a cake to Zimbabwe for a customer, I realised there was a niche in mail order."

Demand for her cakes began in earnest when she wrote to the Daily Telegraph in 1984 when they were featuring women who had started enterprising schemes at home.

"I still remember the interview now. The reporter Elizabeth Williamson sat in my kitchen eating onion soup and a photographer came down a couple of days later and took my picture. Before I knew where I was, I was in the Daily Telegraph and people were writing in asking how they could get hold of my cakes."

She is now interviewing staff for her latest tea room which will open for the preview season at Compton Verney House, situated between Stratford-upon-Avon and Banbury, next month.

Meg still sounds a little bemused by the situation she finds herself in, although she is quick to admit she finds it "terribly exciting" and likes the idea of a little empire of Meg Rivers tea shops.

Her recipe for success is the Meg Rivers reputation for luxury cakes, with that unmistakable attraction of home-made stamped all over them. Her mail order catalogue boasts a cake for every occasion - birthdays, weddings, christenings, even a cricket cakebaked in a square to make cutting easier. You can even join her Cake Club, now 120-strong. where members receive a different cake every other month to suit the time of the year - a pineapple cake for June perhaps.

She prides herself on her use of pure ingredients - organic flour, free-range eggs, English butter, raw untreated sugar and masses of fruit and nuts and even has a range of special diet cakes - apricot and nut and date and nut loaves which have no added sugar or fat.

"I was always into healthy eating but I never had an aversion to sugar and fat in moderation. I devised my fruit cake recipes while I was raising my children because I preferred them to eat a slice of that to a gooey chocolate cake.

"It's a matter of being able to enjoy something that's sweet and not having to suffer for it. At the end of the day, these are cakes, these are luxuries. They are not meant to be a substitute for food."

Halay through the interview, she suddenly stops and asks, "Have you had a piece of cake?" I do not admit I have skipped lunch precisely for this moment.

But suddenly the question becomes deeper. "Do you eat cake? It's such a shame. A whole generation has grown up not knowing how to bake because their mothers never taught them. Their mothers were working and a cake was probably the last thing they had time to make.

"I suppose that leaves a market for us," she laughs, "but it is a shame in a way."

I ask Meg to pick a cake for me and she scrutinises me as though she can match up a cake to my character. "Do you like ginger? I'll get you a slice of ginger cake."

A slice of cake with crystallised ginger encrusted on the top like jewels is placed in front of me. The ginger is from Australia she tells me, which she prefers for its light but tangy taste. It is delicious.

"Baking a cake is such a pleasurable thing to do. There is nothing more satisfying than making a big, fat fruit cake. Anyone can make a fruit cake. The test is how good you are at making them. I must have served up 1000s of cakes now but I still love it when a customer says, 'This is the best fruit cake I've tasted in many a long year,' or 'It's just how my mother used to make it'. It's very pleasing to bring pleasure into people's lives."

Meg has won several awards, not only for her delicious cakes but as a businesswoman, including Options Women mean Business award for best newcomer in 1991 and the Daily Mail's Women into Business Award.

But she says her future plans for the Meg Rivers empire remain firmly in the area she has come to love. Her bakery and tiny tea room in nearby Middle Tysoe provides employment and she is passionate about the importance of preserving village communities, organising concerts in the local churches and hanging pictures by local artists in her tea room.

"People are finding it harder to get jobs because farms are closing. Village life is changing and if we don't do something about it, it will get worse and worse.

"I prefer to keep my tea shops in the smaller villages and towns because it's nice to provide a service for local people and give them somewhere to go."

She is fascinated by the people who come into the shop, often stopping in mid-sentence to observe the old ladies, tourists and women with prams who seem to be her main customers on this particular afternoon.

She may have been born Down Under but she is as English as afternoon tea.

nMeg Rivers Tea Shops Ltd, 2 High Street, Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, CV36 4AJ. To order phone Meg Rivers, Cakes & Gifts by Post, Middle Tysoe, Warwickshire, CV35 OSE on (01295) 688101 or fax (01295) 680799.
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Author:Lynch, Finola
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 28, 1998
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