WARREN BROWN NEVER WENT TO CULINARY SCHOOL. He never took a baking class, never tried to make spun sugar or puff pastry or craft an intricate box out of chocolate. Instead, he graduated from Brown University and went to law school. He became a health educator, teaching young people about responsible sexuality. Then he joined the throngs of suits with law degrees working in the nation's capitol and took a job as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Brown was knee-deep in depositions and briefs, living the life of a Washington lawyer, but his passion was baking. Late at night, he would stay awake in his Washington, D.C., apartment, sifting and beating, mixing and icing, making cakes for colleagues and friends. Then, on a trip to New York to visit family, he made a simple chocolate cake and brought it with him through the airport. The homemade treat, hiding under blue plastic wrap, drew such attention from the people he passed, he realized just how special a scratch-made cake can be. "Right then and there I decided that I would start a cake business," Brown says.
Now Brown runs Cake Love, a tiny bakery in a newly hip corridor of U Street, a rejuvenated historic district lined with boutiques, clubs and cafès. With its distinctive sign above the bakery, Cake Love has become a destination business, attracting a diverse clientele. One of his most expensive start-up costs was the bakery's sign, which cost Brown $10,000 for the weathered copper piece of art. He says it was worth every penny to set the tone for the upscale feel he wanted.
Opened in March 2002, Cake Love produces about 40 cakes each day. In August last year, Brown expanded across the street with the Love Cafè, where customers can sit down with a slice of cake, a cupcake or specialty item. Love Cafè's Crunchy Feet, for example, are small muffins made in brioche pans. Venus Bars are dense cake bars topped with crispy, flavored meringue. The cafè also offers sandwiches, salads and coffee drinks.
Started hitting the books
But Brown's heart is in the bakery. To make it work, he approached it, he says, like a lawyer. He devoured books on baking, including On Food and Cooking by
Harold McGee and The Art of Cake by Bruce Healy. He poured over the scientific balance between proteins and starch, experimented with different kinds of flours and created unlikely flavor
Warren Brown's weathered copper sign enhances Cake Love's urban image.
Cake Love bakes vanilla pound cake in brioche pans to form its signature Crunchy Feet pastries, which are topped with filling and fruit.
combinations like orange-mango-cayenne. He still gets excited about the science of baking: "I love to study the molecular structure," he says, talking about his attempts to make the dry chocolate cakes he remembers from childhood into moist, rich, more appealing ones.
Brown took a course in small business management, and baked in his apartment for ten months before renting a corner in a carry-out kitchen. He held a cake open house in an art gallery, polling people for their opinions on flavor combinations and textures. His basic equipment, including a convection oven and a double-door, reach-in refrigerator, was charged on a credit card that carried $10,000.
Eventually, after a three-month leave of absence, Brown quit his job as an attorney, took out a $125,000 loan from the Small Business Administration and opened his shop.
Once his bakery's doors opened, Brown found that managing employees became a larger challenge than he had expected. Employing about 24 people currently between the cafè and bakery, Brown says he spends much time trying to determine how to reward staff beyond monetary compensation. "The biggest issue is not how to retain staff, but how to appropriately compensate them," Brown says. "It is hard to know what they value."
The trials of a small business entreprenuer seemed daunting at times. Sunk in debt and unsure whether he'd have enough orders to keep going, Brown happened on a Washington Post food reporter who overheard him expounding on the glories of buttercream. She learned about Brown's transformation from attorney to baker, followed him around during the formative days of the transition and published an article. His phone began ringing off the hook. Other publications picked up the story, and he wound up as a kind of celebrity, voted as one of the most eligible bachelors by People magazine. Eventually, he landed a spot on Oprah Winfrey's show.
Brown hopes the publicity will give him a platform to share some of his ideas with an American public he feels is disconnected from basic goodness like homemade cakes. Even when prices on butter and fresh fruit spiked, Brown never wavered from quality ingredients.
Volatile ingredient prices
Last year, Cake Love's commitment to such quality ingredients were challenged by severe price hikes. Butter went from $55 a case to $94 a case. Vanilla beans more than doubled, from $142 for a pound to $316. Gallons of vanilla extract followed suit, rocketing from $90 a gallon to $196 a gallon, and strawberries that were $14 per flat went to $44 in February. Brown held his prices for a while, then raised them, in some cases, by $10 per cake. The change, he says, had no negative affect on sales.
A sampling of
|New German Chocolate cake|
|Susie's a Pink Lady cake|
|Lemon Swirl cake|
|6 ins., w/buttercream||$25|
His bakery earned $529,000 in revenue last year, its second year of operation. "My interest is to raise the bar for cakes across the board and get scratch made cakes out there, because that will raise the demand," he says.
Cake Love's retail prices range from $35 for the smallest 6-in. layered round to $105 for a 12-in. Among the standards are New German Chocolate cake, a moist chocolate with coconut-vanilla infused buttercream. Susie's a Pink Lady is a three-layer vanilla butter cake with fresh raspberries, raspberry puree and Italian buttercream, and Lemon Swirl features vanilla butter cake moistened with lemon liqueur and topped with vanilla bean buttercream.
More unusual are selections like Maizing with sweet corn and dark chocolate in vanilla butter cake; Sassy, a mango, orange, and cayenne cake topped with orange and vanilla-infused buttercream; and Heartbeet, a magenta-colored beet butter cake with raspberry-pink buttercream.
"The freshness is something that's noticeable," he says. "Even if the difference is marginal, when you look at all the different products, it adds up." He cracks eggs and uses real butter, whole vanilla beans and fresh strawberries. "I can't say enough about how important it is to me to have high-quality ingredients," he says. "Compromise in quality at Cake Love won't happen."
To get the best cake results, Brown credits two ingredients in particular: cocoa powder and potato starch. He uses cocoa powder that is extra brut, Dutch-processed, and 22 to 24 percent cocoa butter, about twice as much as most formulas, he says. The flavor difference is significant, says Brown, and it imparts a rounder, richer mouthfeel.
The potato starch is equally important. Blended with unbleached flour, the potato starch gives Cake Love's cakes a balance of strength, tenderness and texture.
Potato starch is superior to arrowroot, cornstarch, and tapioca, says Brown, who first started using it when he read Bruce Healy's The Art of Cake.
Becoming the neighborhood's bakery
To further draw customers, Cake Love also makes efforts to become an active part of its neighborhood. The bakery recently sponsored a poetry reading for teenagers and hosted a post-movie gathering for people who went to see Michael Moore's controversial film, Fahrenheit 9/11.
Love Cafè provides a venue for more community oriented activity. "I love the fact that people consider U Street as Black Broadway," he says, referring to the area's history. "But it's also important to make our own history. That's what we're doing on U Street right now."
Brown hopes to continue to do just that, creating a following for Cake Love's scratch-made cakes until he has multiple shops. He's been quoted as having ambitions to be the Ben and Jerry's or Famous Amos of cakes. "Cake helps to foster communication," he explains, pointing out that special-occasion cakes are usually eaten in the company of others. "If this product can facilitate that, I'm loving it. I think I've made a contribution that's significant."