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Pia Cato

Cheltenham’s entrepreneurial cup cake queen. crack

When you walk into Vanilla Pod Bakery, the first thing you notice is the smell of cupcakes. It’s overwhelmingly gorgeous though Pia Cato, the owner, says she no longer notices it. I certainly do.

As well as the smell of cupcakes, smiles all round from Pia and her assistant Ellie Balmer-Waters greet me, together with the offer of a cup of tea. I am loving Vanilla Pod already.

Pia asks me if I would like to hear about her latest initiatives but first we chat about Pia herself and how she got into the cupcake business. She never intended her life to go this way, but now it has, it’s wonderful.

Pia is originally from Edenbridge in Kent but came to Cheltenham in 2005 to study marketing at the University of Gloucestershire. While on her placement 3 years ago she saw a gap in the market – a distinct lack of tea rooms in Cheltenham. Not pubs or restaurants, there are plenty of those, but the kind of tea rooms you find in Bourton-on-the-Water. She felt that tea rooms represented something that forms part of the English ‘quintessential way of life’. So when the opportunity arose to enter a competition that required her to submit a ‘business plan’, that’s exactly what she did. She entered a plan for a tea room selling cupcakes.

She won the competition, and the rest as they say, is history. The prize allowed her to set up Vanilla Pod. Her bakery is located in Formal House, where furniture and storage business, Barnby Bendall was located, but many decades ago it was an old workhouse. ‘Is it haunted?’ I ask. Pia and Ellie both laugh and Pia says she has seen shadows drift past from time to time and tells me I should talk to the landlord.

Ellie all the time is working away as they have an order to fulfil. Is it always this busy? I enquire. Oh yes, always. If they get a huge order they have to work till midnight!

Now this probably sounds typical of a small business apart from one thing. Pia suffers from ME, a debilitating illness which leaves the sufferer with severe fatigue and malaise following mental or physical activity. It began 11 years ago when she was still at school. Initially she was bedridden and had to come out of school right before her GCSEs. She managed to get six and go to college part time. She still has to rest every day.

Her first job after graduating was in PR but it proved difficult as she had to take so much time off work. For a while she worked for her parents part time in PR and marketing. Running her own business, however, turned out to be the best option as she can manage her time and pace herself. It’s hard to believe she has achieved so much in such a short time and she is still only 24.

So what else is in the pipeline for Pia? Apart from giving a talk to 200 local business women on 17th November at Gloucester Rugby Club, she has launched two initiatives. The first of these is her Cupcake Workshops which she holds every fortnight on a Tuesday at Red Pepper in Regent Street. Each workshop starts at 6.30 and last two hours. For £35 a head, participants get six uniced cupcakes which they ice and take home. They learn to make sugar paste decorations such as roses and butterflies, make butter cream and learn piping skills. So far the workshops have been sold out. Pia will also come to your house for your birthday party, hen night, graduation party – in fact any occasion. Kids love the workshops too and they are great for any age over about five or six. Pia sells gift vouchers as well so you can give a cupcake party as a present with a difference.

Initiative number two is called Love Fridays Love Cupcakes. Aimed at local businesses whose staff can’t get into town easily at lunchtime, this will allow them to pre-order any number of cupcakes (preferably 48 hours in advance for volume orders) and Pia will deliver them direct to your door. As Pia says, ‘Everyone likes cake on a Friday’. Regular cupcakes are priced at £2 each – you can also get bite size ones for £1 which the kids love.

Cupcakes are also particularly popular at weddings and Pia attends many Wedding Fairs throughout the year. But now the wedding season is off it’s time for the party season to begin, from Halloween through to Christmas and New Year.

Vanilla Pod Bakery really is Cheltenham’s own. As well as Pia herself having made her home here, most of her ingredients like the eggs are sourced locally and she buys her flour from Shipton. In addition she only uses real Madagascar vanilla.

In time for Christmas, Pia will be adding a gorgeous Christmas fruit cake made with chocolate and Brandy. It’s made to her grandmother’s secret recipe so the rest of the ingredients are of course, a secret!

Pia still hasn’t opened her tea room, but I’m sure that will be next on the agenda for one of Cheltenham’s own entrepreneurs. For more about Pia and the bakery you can visit her website at: