Four years ago, Warren Brown walked away from a job as a federal litigator to bake cakes. It all started on New Year's 1999 when Brown, an able cook, resolved to become an expert baker as well. After work, he began to whip up cakes. He found that baking provided release from the workaday stress.
Soon Brown fell into the habit of throwing dessert parties -- "Friends were jumping on the bed," they were so happy, he recalls. Their joy combined with his job dissatisfaction led Brown to take a leave of absence in 2000. He wanted to see if he could support himself as a baker. He subleased a small commercial kitchen and found customers mostly by word of mouth. This went well enough that he moved into a 600-square-foot storefront that he christened Cake Love. He funded the business with credit cards and then a $125,000 loan backed by the Small Business Administration. When Brown officially left his day job, Emily McCarthy, Brown's friend since college, says she wasn't shocked but did think it was brave.
Today, Cake Love sells around 40 cakes per day at about $55 each. The sweet-smelling bakery's walls are painted a warm yellow, and a huge picture window allows a view of the kitchen from the sidewalk, drawing in customers. The surrounding U Street corridor neighborhood is being rapidly gentrified, and the business seems to embody the vitality and style of the young new homeowners who are moving in. McCarthy believes Brown's background further helps the business because in D.C. it seems that almost everyone is a lawyer. "They can live vicariously through Warren when they go to the bakery," she explains.
With about four of his 16 bakery employees present at any one time, a glut of baking equipment, and a steady stream of customers, Cake Love is easily crowded. Brown opened the Love Cafe across the street in 2002 to provide a little breathing room. The cafe, which has red brick walls and comfy chairs, serves sandwiches and soups as well as cake.
On a recent afternoon, customers stopped to say hi to Brown, who sat (a rarity) wearing a Cake Love T-shirt and a colorful knit cap. For a baker, he has a slim, athletic build. Now 34, he plans to open several more locations in suburban D.C. this year. Though he spends more time managing than frosting cakes these days, he still bakes most mornings. He also works on new products such as Cake Love's version of the all-natural energy bar. The business is successful enough that he has cleared his credit cards and can pay himself the same salary the government used to pay him.
Brown's bakery is even starting to generate buzz beyond the Beltway.
He has appeared on Oprah and the Today show, for which he prepared a German chocolate cake with frosting that he says is less gooey and more coconutty. Co-host Ann Curry seemed to enjoy the cake a lot, prompting Katie Couric to say: "You know, this is really a compliment because Ann doesn't eat during segments very often, and now she can't stop." It's hard to imagine a legal brief achieving the same level of acclaim.