Making Dough

For the buzz it generates, Cake Love is tinier than one might imagine. Situated along a hip corridor of upscale bars and restaurants, a yoga studio, and a locksmith, the shop has two ovens, a stove, a walk-in refrigerator, counters for assembling cakes, and a display case.

Ten employees keep the place running, handcrafting mouth-watering concoctions like New German Chocolate Cake, with thick curls of toasted coconut; Sassy Pound Cake, with orange, mango, cayenne, and butter cream; and Venus Bars, dense chocolate or hazelnut bars topped with chewy meringue. These are not fussy frills, but tasty treats that look homemade. Cake Love earned $529,000 in revenues in 2003, its second year since it opened in March 2002. According to Modern Baking, a publication for the trade, retail bakeries represent a $13 billion business in the United States. Specialty shops like Warren Brown’s are a growing phenomenon.

In 1999, Brown found his work as a lawyer unfulfilling. He stayed up late not over briefs and depositions, but mixing cakes for co-workers and friends. While walking through an airport with a homemade cake, passersby made gushing remarks usually reserved for adorable babies and bouquets of flowers. Brown realized the power that a simple cake can have.

Brown began small. For 10 months he baked in his Washington, D.C., apartment. He came home after work around 6 p.m. and baked for four or five hours. He devoured books like On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The Art of the Cake by Bruce Healy, and Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne. While on a three-month leave of absence from his job, Brown leased space in a carryout kitchen for $310 a month and put $10,000 on his credit card for basic equipment, including an oven and a double-door refrigerator. He also took a free community course in entrepreneurship. Then he held a cake open house in an art gallery. Scores of enthusiastic cake lovers attended, and Brown says he left feeling very confident. That feeling, however, deflated a few months later when he quit his job, had no business plan, and few cake orders.

The media saved him. A Washington Post reporter who overheard Brown discussing the intricacies of butter cream proposed an article about his evolution from lawyer to bakery owner. When it was printed, “the phone didn’t stop ringing, two days straight,” says Brown. The story was picked up by other publications (Brown was one of People magazine’s 50 most eligible bachelors in 2001), and then Oprah Winfrey called. When he appeared on her show, business spiked again.

His toughest challenge was anxiety. “Each individual problem you face is totally surmountable,” he says, but as a business owner, “everything feels like a disaster when it’s right in your face. You just have to be calm, look at what you’re doing, and fix the problem.” His motto for tackling any enterprise is: “Assess, visualize, execute, revise, and sustain.”

For now, Brown is revising and sustaining, but he’s hoping to open another shop in 2005. And he feels compelled