From Rhine Valley to Lochside: Katja's Cakes continues to thrive

17 July 2020

If everything had gone according to plan, Katja Stübiger would have been spending July serving her delicious cakes and bakes to throngs of puffin-seeking tourists from the world over down at Sumburgh Head.

2020 has been the year when nearly everyone’s best-laid plans went skew-whiff thanks to Coronavirus. But Katja – who established her popular Unken Wagen two years ago – has been as resourceful as anyone during lockdown.

She swiftly established a Friday and Saturday delivery service, depositing welcome sweet treats on the doorsteps of customers in Lerwick, Tingwall, Scalloway and Gulberwick for several weeks.

Now she has been able to resume something like normal service, with the wagon stationed at Lochside in Lerwick.

“I feel really supported by people,” Katja says. “With the deliveries it picked up really quick, people supported me massively. It’s just brilliant. When I finished the deliveries, people gave me flowers and cards and everything, and I felt really appreciated – I wasn’t expecting this!”

The friendly and chatty 49-year-old moved to Shetland over a decade ago to live with her partner, Andrew Hawick, and initially worked in social care. Her baking enterprise began soon after with a “really small stall” at a Tingwall Farmers’ Market and has “just built up from there”.

The Unken Wagen – the name combines her favourite Shetland dialect word (loosely meaning “unfamiliar”) and the German spelling of “wagon” – is a beautifully done out vehicle from which she sells artisan cakes, barista coffee and now savoury lunchtime offerings.

Andrew is to thank for fitting out the minibus – which was previously used to shuttle disabled fans of Portsmouth FC around – having tracked it down in Birmingham and spent several years lovingly converting it.

The eye-catching graphics – featuring a woman wearing a unique Black Forest headdress or “bollenhut” – were the handiwork of Craig Sim from Art Machine.  

Katja grew up in the Black Forest, in south west Germany, before studying in Cologne. She then lived in Berlin for a time before relocating to the middle of the North Sea in 2009.

Needless to say it was quite a contrast to one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan, bustling metropolises. “I found it quite difficult at the beginning,” she admits.

“I had to find my place, but I like it now. When you live in the city you don’t meet people by accident. I think people really care for each other here, they support each other as well.”

Where her parents stay there is a bakery bus that comes by selling bread and cakes, while Katja is also fond of small kiosks in Berlin where “you go there at 11 at night and you can buy a little bit of everything”, while she also regularly sought out flea markets back home.

“The bus is sort of a mix of all those things,” she says.

And those cakes… on the bright and breezy day that we visited, our young kids absolutely devoured our selection box – Katja’s trademark mandarin cream gateau, a raspberry pastry number and a sensational baked blueberry cheesecake.

“I learned it from my mum and my grand-mum, just baking at home. There’s a few long-time favourites – the mandarin cream gateau (pictured above left) always goes. Sometimes people like the chocolate, sometimes they go for cheesecake.”

The coffee is great too, though just past 1pm we were too late to sample the day’s sold-out savoury option – a tomato, goat’s cheese and pine nut quiche. Indeed, Thursday lunchtime’s trade was brisk enough that we ended up rearranging our interview until after closing time.

In many ways Katja’s business could serve as a template for other enterprising foodies in the islands.

The continental style of baking offers something distinctively different to what you’d find elsewhere locally, but she uses Shetland Farm Dairies produce, eggs from Vidlin and gets her nuts, almonds, raisins, chocolate and so on from Scoop Wholefoods.

In addition, the business has built up gradually from a hobby stall at the farmers market, to country shows – successful enough that people were soon asking when she was going to open her own place.

The next phase is creating a fixed kitchen in a disused building down at Garthspool. Andrew is busy working on that now – and it should mean they eventually get their house back (the business “probably occupies half the house, unfortunately!”).

After parking the wagon up at Sumburgh Head last summer while the amenity trust’s café was being refurbished, she moved into the café for the last couple of weeks of the 2019 season. She hopes to return there in 2021, all being well.

For now, though, Katja is just happy to have been able to keep her show on the road(side).

“It was affecting me during the deliveries, my income was definitely not the same, but I’m not reliant on tourism and I’m open now – summer will be a different thing.  I think I’m in a really lucky position that I can still do something the whole time through.”

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