Ones to Watch | By Ann Loftin
Most people don’t keep New Year’s resolutions, but Warren Brown did. He was still a lawyer, investigating health-care fraud for the federal government, when he resolved to learn to bake cakes. Brown had always loved to cook for people anyway, but he was not a baker. For Brown, cake mastery became a biological imperative.
One bad cake led to another, but soon he was king of cakes, a dinner party legend, the pride of his tribe of unhappily employed lawyers who joked that they should all start a Web-based support group called leavingthelaw.com.
Brown’s success with butter and sugar prompted him to leave the law and open his first of seven bakeries in Washington, Maryland, and Virginia. He became something of a celebrity right away, thanks to the accident of meeting The Washington Post’s food writer at a cooking supply store. And perhaps there was something intriguing for Brown’s wide-eyed customers about an African-American man, the son of a Cleveland doctor, who would voluntarily leave the elite fast track of law for a risky experiment in downward mobility.
Whatever the case, Brown’s cake business thrived from the moment he opened his first bakery on U Street, a 600-square-foot storefront, where customers could see Brown’s cakes being baked, assembled, and frosted.
The cakes—three-layer affairs made with butter and granulated sugar—didn’t come cheap; people were happily paying $60–$65 to take home one of Brown’s new version of billable hours. Within two years Brown opened his Love Café, a 1,500-square foot restaurant serving sandwiches, salads, and, of course, slices of cake, all prepared on site by Brown and a growing staff. In 2006 he opened an indoor/outdoor, 1,500-square-foot bakery in Silver Spring, Maryland.
In rapid succession he opened five more CakeLove outlets, in Shirlington, Virginia (September ’07); Baltimore (February ’08); Canton, Maryland; Tyson’s Corner, Virginia (May ’08); and Maryland’s National Harbor (August ’08). Then came the stock market crash and Brown’s business slowed, causing him to think more deeply about cakes than he’d ever imagined possible.
He thought about quality and price—about the fact that it would be far cheaper and easier to bake from one location. “If you want to make cakes economically and efficiently, you bake at one site and freeze the product,” he says. “And you use vegetable oil, which can make the product seem fresh for weeks.”
He noticed that many people didn’t appear to taste the difference between a highly perishable cake made with fresh butter, and a longer-lasting cake baked with vegetable oil. In time, he stumbled onto the dirty little truth of the food business: You can achieve a similar taste using cheaper ingredients, and most people won’t know the difference.
But in the end, Brown decided, cost-effectiveness could go to hell.
“I didn’t get into the business for the money. Sure, you have to make a profit or you’ll go out of business, but I went into this business because I like food and I want to share it with other people.”
In Brown’s words, “it’s all about having a better quality of life.” He has already published one book about living large through cakes, Cake Love, How to Bake Cakes from Scratch, and is working on a second book, United Cakes of America, to explore the idea of a groundswell of national cake-baking.
“People are at work and play through the lens of the cake,” Brown says.
Brown continues to struggle with customer demand versus his commitment to purity. For example, people are always asking for Red Velvet cake, and Brown has beaten the bushes but still not found a natural red dye. So in this case he’s decided he’ll cave, and he rationalizes, “maybe it will be a teaser, to get people in the door.” Brown predicts that Red Velvet will be the No. 1 seller overnight.
Another big seller, one that doesn’t weigh on his conscience, is The 44, named for the Obama administration. Brown took a 44 to the White House to give to the Obamas, but it didn’t make it through; all gifts routinely get photographed and then incinerated.
President: Warren Brown
HQ: Washington, D.C.
Year Started: 2002
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 7
Franchise Units: 0
CakeLove’s commitment to quality is likely to pay off in the long run.
Brown is savvy about media—already having appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” the “Today Show,” and Fox News.
There’s also an idea for a third book. “My third book will be about how to survive running a small business. People are losing their jobs; they want to know how to start a business,” Brown says. “We’ll make it out of this recession. I don’t know how or in what shape, but we’re prepared to stick it out.”
One thing Brown has already learned: Running a small business “makes a career in law look like a piece of cake.”