While there is no physical presence of Mert at Mert’s Cakes, her spirit is everywhere in the kitchen and in the cakes. Mert is the grandmother of Virginia Rankin, the owner of Mert’s Cakes. Making famous cakes in Louisville is a long way from this former marketing executive’s small hometown in Arkansas, where she got her start. She took her knowledge from Mammaw Mert and followed her passion to make cakes for a living. If you have been to a wedding in Louisville, you have probably tasted one of these delicious cakes, and inadvertently met the famous Mert, too. Virginia has now expanded her business to include praline cakes, which she hopes will be her own legacy cake.
Who is Mert, and what role did she play in your life?
Mammaw Mert is my maternal grandmother and the person responsible for my love affair with cake and gardening. She lived a very simple life in Calhoun County, AR, where there were no extravagances. My commitment to moist, old-fashioned-tasting cake is inspired by her and the experiences I had as a child in her rural Southern kitchen. Mammaw Mert never got the opportunity to see my professional work, so I named my business in tribute to her.
When did you start baking cakes?
I was 12 years old when Mammaw Mert taught me how to bake on my own. I had been observing her in the kitchen since the age of 3. My earliest memories are of sitting on her linoleum countertop licking the spoons and bowl. We churned our own butter and used fresh eggs right from her henhouse. When I asked for her butter cake recipe, she told me that she didn’t have one! Everything she did in the kitchen was done by the eye. She used her own hand as a measuring device. So each time she used her hand to measure something, I would then have her pour the ingredient into my measuring cup, and that’s how I finally got a written recipe of Mammaw Mert’s Cake.
When did you realize that you could make a living doing this?
Somewhere along the way, a transformation occurred in my own kitchen from making just great-tasting cakes to making great-tasting cakes that also look great. The first time I received money for a cake was in the late ’80s, when baking was still a hobby for me. In the early ’90s, I left my professional career in sales and marketing to devote my full-time attention to this budding business, and I opened my first commercial baking studio in 1997. I’ve kept the doors open ever since, but it became apparent to me that my wedding cake business was never going to live beyond me. I wanted to leave a legacy, something that will live well beyond my last breath. In that same vein, I realized that I wanted to develop a product that would be sellable to the masses and easily reproduced. That is how the Louie’s Derby Cake and our praline cakes were born.
In 2015, I took the step to realize that dream by separating the praline division from the wedding business at Mert’s Cakes. This new company is called Mert’s Kitchen, and we offer several different spirited praline cake flavors. We are on par to triple our business in 2016.
What is the favorite thing that you make? Do you eat cake every day?
After all these years, my favorite thing to bake is still Mammaw Mert’s old-fashioned butter cake with fresh pineapple filling. I could eat it every day and never get sick of it. Despite my passion (and urge) for cake, I do not allow myself to eat it often. It’s a personal commitment I made to myself a long time ago that makes it possible to keep up with the physical demands of my business — besides, it wouldn’t make sense to eat the profits!
What is the hardest part of your job? And what is the easiest?
Hands down, the easiest part of my job is working with clients. I LOVE getting to know them and being able to bring their ideas and dreams into focus. It’s so magical to see their events take shape from the beginning to the end.
The hardest part for me is office work. It makes me feel like I’m in time-out. I do not enjoy any part of being in the office. Being creative is vital to my happiness. Invoicing is not.
Give us a peek at your agenda. What’s a typical day or week like for you?
The typical day for me is rarely typical. I have a few standard routines, but I find that once I step through the studio doors, the day shapes itself. No matter how the day shakes out, I always make time to exercise.
I normally wake up (without an alarm) around 5:30 a.m. and start my day with a cup of hot tea. I like to watch the sunrise, and I spend some quiet time reading or meditating. I arrive to my studio space in Middletown between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., and that’s where the “typical” day ends. On any given day, you can find me in and out of client meetings, overseeing production, monitoring quality control, organizing the efforts of my team, meeting with my Mert’s Kitchen business partner, sourcing ingredients, coordinating with other vendors … where do I stop? I try to leave the studio around 7 p.m., but there are many nights when I’m there until well past 11 p.m.
January and February are my gifts, and I don’t feel guilty about working shorter hours during those months. After April, its nonstop until the New Year.
What advice do you treasure?
“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” — Vince Lombardi
Fill in the blank. You’ll never see me without my _________.
Smile. We have so much to smile about, and to me it comes naturally.
Where can we find you hanging out around town?
My husband and I love to entertain and cook. We treat our home in eastern Shelby County as a retreat in the woods. If I’m not at work or at my home, you can usually find me at a residential property I purchased a few years ago in Middletown. It’s a 96-year-old Craftsman bungalow that I am personally renovating one project at a time.
What’s your favorite thing to do in Louisville?
I love attending concerts at The Palace. I adore the nostalgia that the building holds, and I also appreciate the intimate feel and outstanding acoustics.
Night owl or early bird? What do you do during that quiet time?
I am definitely an early bird and enjoy the peace and quiet of my mornings. I’m a voracious reader, and you can find me enjoying a good book or meditating and reflecting during those quiet hours before I head into work.
Tell us some of your favorite local restaurants.
I am a creature of habit, and Selena’s is one of my favorite places to go. (Hello to Christian at the bar at Selena’s! He knows how to pour an amazing drink!) I also love the authentic Mexican food at Marimba in Shelbyville.
What’s on your personal reading list right now?
I just finished two great books: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I am currently reading The Autoimmune Solution by Dr. Amy Meyers. Ken Follett and Jeffery Archer are two of my favorite authors.
Lightning Round! Give us your:
Candy or junk food splurge: Fried chicken livers (I’m a Southern gal, what can I say?!)
Guilty pleasure song: “Load Out and Stay” by Jackson Browne
Tearjerker movie pick: Amistad — I cried like a baby the first time I saw it, and nothing has changed since.
Standby nail polish color: I use my hands so much that it’s hard to keep up with nail polish. Clear polish by Hard As Nails is my go-to.
Favorite cocktail: Tito’s Club Soda, tall with two limes
Cartoon alter-ego: Road Runner
What are three of your favorite things right now, besides faith, family and friends?
Roaring fires, my greenhouse, Valentine’s Day
Thank you, as always, to Adele Reding for her beautiful photography.
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