From Kitchen Experiment to the Royal Wedding Cake: The Fiona Cairns Story

Tucked away in the gently rolling hills of South Leicestershire is one of the country’s most famous cake makers – Fiona Cairns Ltd. Many of you will recognise Fiona as the baker who, working with her skilled and loyal team, created William and Kate’s wedding cake in 2011. But fewer will know that Fiona’s remarkable business, which now employs over 100 people and supplies Waitrose and many other high-quality retailers, began at her kitchen table. At first, there was no calculated business plan, no grand vision, just a few cakes baked as gifts for friends.

Fiona Cairns with Great Food Club founder Matt Wright (left) and editor Philip Seaman.

“Creating the business was an accident. It wasn’t a planned route,” Fiona explains. “Some people think, ‘Oh, I’m going to start a cake business.’ But this was purely accidental. I had to be enticed along the way.”

The foresight of Fiona’s late husband, Kishore Patel, was pivotal. “It was his vision right from the off, not mine,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for him, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Before embarking on her journey as a celebrated baker, Fiona Cairns had a diverse career. Her initial path was shaped by her studies at art college in Canterbury during the 1970s, where she pursued graphic design. Deeply passionate about drawing and illustrating, Fiona aimed to build a career around her creative talents. However, she found the art college experience disheartening. “It managed to stamp out all my passion,” she says.

Despite this setback, the skills she developed did not go to waste. They later became integral to her baking success, where visual appeal is as important as taste. As Fiona says: “You eat with your eyes first”.

After art college, Fiona moved to London, where she initially did freelance illustration work while seeking new challenges and experiences. This pursuit led her to enroll in a cookery course in Richmond. This wasn’t just any ordinary class; it was a prestigious program where celebrated chefs, including the Roux brothers, came to demonstrate their techniques. This exposure to high-calibre kitchen skills sparked Fiona’s interest in patisserie, particularly because of the precision it required — a skill in which she excelled.

Fiona Cairns chocolate cupcakes.

Her newfound passion led to an opportunity at Hambleton Hall in Rutland, then newly opened and home to the country’s youngest Michelin star chef, Nick Gill. Fiona moved to south Leicestershire and joined the team at Hambleton, thanks to a recommendation from Lyn Hall, who ran the cookery course Fiona attended.

Working at Hambleton Hall was challenging and exciting. Here, Fiona honed her kitchen skills during a crucial learning period. It provided experience in a high-pressure culinary environment and taught her about teamwork and the rigorous demands of top-quality food preparation. During this time, she began baking cakes for friends and family, planting the seeds for what would eventually become Fiona Cairns Ltd.

The turning point came during a skiing holiday with friends in 1985. “I’d started making cakes for friends. I didn’t quite know what I was doing. It was quite experimental,” she says. She brought eight novelty Christmas cakes in little tins, which captivated her friends. “You should market these; there’s nothing like this,” they encouraged. Motivated, Fiona and Kishore embarked on transforming this baking prowess into a burgeoning business.

Cakes designed for Jubilee Street Parties.

Their first significant breakthrough came in 1987 when they placed their miniature Fiona Cairns cakes in the Conran shop — “72 cakes was the first order, all decorated, all iced”. This initial success laid the foundations. “Next, Kishore said, ‘We’re going to develop a luxury brand that will go into Harrods.’ We managed to secure an appointment, and soon they placed an order,” Fiona says.

However, nothing tested Fiona and her team’s resolve and skill (by this point, Fiona Cairns Ltd had grown into a company) as much as the royal wedding cake project in 2011. Back then, Fiona Cairns Ltd supplied Fortnum & Mason, the Royal grocer, so various royal family members were familiar with the cakes. Consequently, Fiona was selected to bake for royalty. The project was daunting not just in its scale but also in its public and ceremonial significance.

“When we went to the Palace to discuss the wedding cake, I remember saying, ‘Can you get back to us sooner rather than later because it’s not very long until the wedding?’ We were working to a tight deadline with immense pressure,” Fiona shares. The creation process was steeped in secrecy and meticulous planning, from detailed mood boards to constant communication with Clarence House.

The Royal Wedding Cake in 2011.

Reflecting on the monumental task, Fiona admits: “It was a huge honour but very worrying. We hadn’t ever made anything as significant as this. This had an international interest.” Yet, the cake was a resounding success, surpassing the expectations of the royal couple and earning Fiona personal thanks from the newly married couple.

Today, Fiona Cairns Ltd has grown significantly but remains rooted in the principles that Kishore and Fiona set in their early days. Despite the challenges posed by market changes and cost fluctuations, the company thrives more than ever, supported by a dedicated team and the enduring appeal of its cakes.

Fiona and her team’s journey from accidental baker to celebrated royal cake makers is a beacon of inspiration for small food and drink businesses everywhere. It showcases the power of embracing opportunities, teamwork and the impact of having a clear, shared vision between creative and business partners.

The Fiona Cairns team in April 2024 at a local ParkRun to raise money for Rainbows Children’s Hospice.
The author:

Matt lives in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. He is passionate about the independent food & drink sector and founded Great Food Club in 2010 after being inspired by local producers near his home town.