An Interview with CakeLove’s Warren Brown

As you saw in our post yesterday, we recently re-visited CakeLove and really enjoyed our experience. Warren Brown, former educator and lawyer, is the owner of CakeLove. He began his baking journey in 1999, with a resolution to overcome a fear of flour, and opened CakeLove, three short years later. He’s a featured chef and was the host of Sugar Rush on the Food Network. Warren has been written about numerous times, both nationwide and here in the Baltimore/DC area.

We were lucky enough to have Warren take some time for a little Q&A session!

CakeLove-WarrenBrown
Warren Brown: Baker, Chef, Author, Host, Entrepreneur, Educator, Lawyer, etc. etc. etc. (Photo found here, no harm intended)

What is your first baking memory?
I didn’t start baking at an early age. My first memories of a real adventure in the kitchen are from around age 10 when I made BBQ sauce and short ribs on the outdoor gas grill. If anything I think the first memories of baking was when my sister and her friends were baking box cakes at our neighbor’s house. I wanted to be there, but wasn’t and in some way I suppose my curiosity about cake started then.

I read that you started baking in 1999, just 1 year prior to leaving your law practice in 2000. What were the first steps you took in changing your career and opening CakeLove?
My first steps toward baking were small steps. I was determined to learn to bake and really use a lot of my research skills to find the best recipes. I found myself combing through books, websites, magazines and asking friends and relatives about their baking secrets. What surprised me was the number of people who had a special baking trick or piece of helpful info that they were willing to share. One man in the apartment building I lived in had a shelf full of books that he let me borrow for a few months. It takes a lot of time to find good recipes—there’s just so much testing involved. It took about 2 years for me to really feel comfortable writing my own recipes. And when I look back at what I wrote, I can really see that baking is a lesson in life-long learning. I’m happy to say that I use a broader array of ingredients now which keeps things interesting. It’s not that I out-and-out disagree with my early recipes, but what we’re doing now is more advanced, better balanced, and features a texture and crumb that is just more delicate.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to change their careers and start their own business?
Fluffy thoughts advice in a nutshell: Starting a business is a great opportunity to have a memorable and riveting life experience. Recognize that you’re jumping into the unknown and be prepared—at least mentally—for the unexpected. A lot of what will happen will be great so celebrate the good things when they happen. Don’t fret over the bad stuff, not everything in life will go the way you hope.

Nuts & bolts advice in a nutshell: Have a big idea. Get focused on a strategy to make it happen. Check your ego at the door, get lots of feedback and adapt.

Who/What inspired you to become a baker?
I was inspired by memories of my favorite bakery from when I was boy: Lax & Mandel on South Taylor in University Heights, Ohio. The women who worked there were always very kind, the cakes were delicious, and my memories of the goodies in the box on my kitchen counter give me peace.

What is your favorite tool in the kitchen?
My digital scale. It makes measuring fast and accurate.

Do you have a favorite cupcake flavor?
My favorite right now is our Red Velvet. I became a convert once we revamped the recipe in December ‘12 to make it more moist and delicate.

What makes CakeLove different from other bakeries and how did you come up with the name?
Well, I think there is a lot that distinguishes CakeLove from other bakeries. To me, it’s all about the balance we try to achieve in each product—and we sell a variety of items apart from just cupcakes or cake pops. Our eclairs are awesome. The caramel brownies and chocolate chip cookies get lots of nods. The lemon bars never last long.

Of course, our bread & butter are cakes and cupcakes. So we try to keep a reasonable cake to frosting ratio for the cakes and cupcakes. We like the smiles of relief that come when people sample our buttercream or cream cheese icing; they like it because it’s “not too sweet.” And we really enjoy being innovative. We began a gluten free and vegan line back in 2006 which we’ve also recently updated with a wonderful , simpler recipe. I experiment in the kitchen all of the time and am very excited about our latest new release: Cake in a Jar. It’s cake & cream cheese icing in a recyclable jar with a screw top. It gives our product portability and customers have the option to eat a little now and save the rest for later. We’re stoked about its pending release in June.

The name CakeLove has always been a great part of the business. We get a lot of positive feedback about it. I love cake and wanted a strong name and thought a compound word would be fun. I don’t know why, but I’ve always liked compound words. Anyway, “love cake” didn’t quite work so I flipped it and found myself liking CakeLove from the beginning.

If you aren’t making the desserts yourself, where are you buying them from?
I’m liking my friend Jeff’s ice cream sandwiches from Cream Cycle—ice cream sandwiches sold via (adult sized) tricycles.

You were a great host on the Food Network’s Sugar Rush, will we see you or CakeLove on TV again anytime soon?
Thanks, I had fun hosting. No plans now, but we’re always talking with producers about ideas. A lot of the time I’ve spent working on media over the past few years has been focused on research & writing. My fourth cook book, PieLove, publishes this September. (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

You recently made some changes to CakeLove, including recipes and refrigeration, what made you change things?
After ten plus years we took stock of where we were and listened closely to what people were saying. We’re thankful for all of the feedback—it’s been a gift in terms of telling us what our customers like and don’t like. After a few deep gulps, we committed to change and dove in. We just kept it simple and asked what can we do better? Display the cupcakes so they’re ready to eat—done. Revamp the recipes so they have a softer texture—done. Boost the flavor of the red velvet—done. And so on.

Since we initiated change at the bakery, I’ve noticed just how many other businesses are doing the same thing and how normal it is. For a while I think I didn’t want to embrace change out of fear of alienating our core base. But our core values of baking from scratch with only the finest ingredients remains firmly in place and with our commitment to quickly incorporate the feedback from our community via social media, focus groups, and feedback swaps we’ve adapted and have much better product because of it.

We cannot thank Warren (and Kim LaMore, CakeLove’s Corporate Sales and Service Manager) enough for taking the time to contact us and answer our questions. We really enjoyed our second visit to CakeLove and Warren inspires us to continue to pursue our dreams, just as he did. If you’re ever in the area, stop in to one of his CakeLove shops and enjoy a sweet treat!

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader Elisa (Baltimore, MD)

A Second Chance for True “CakeLove”

We Crusaders want each cupcake we try to be great, sadly that isn’t always the case and sometimes we end up writing reviews that aren’t so sweet. Because we pride ourselves in being perfectly honest, good or bad, we will write about it. Every so often we hear back about changes that a baker or shop made after reading our review, with requests to try their cupcakes again. Well, we love eating cupcakes and are always up for giving a shop a second chance, so when CakeLove contacted us about giving them another try, we knew we had to go!

Crudsader Stacy was the first to try CakeLove about a year ago (read review), sadly it didn’t quite live up to her expectations. Kim LaMore, CakeLove’s Corporate Sales and Service Manager, saw our review this past February and contacted us about giving CakeLove another try. We were excited to hear that they made some changes after reading reviews from yelp, bloggers, and other social media outlets. (It is always nice when companies listen to their customers and take criticism in stride.)

After planning with Crusaders Jenn and Stacy, I set out to swing by CakeLove after the DC Rock & Roll 1/2 Marathon in March. When I got to the shop I was greeted by very friendly staff and choose 6 cupcakes to bring back to Baltimore. The Crusaders and I made plans to spend the next day together and try them in true “cupcake buffet” form.

Bailey’s
CakeLove-Baileys

Who wouldn’t want some Bailey’s and chocolate cake the day after running a 1/2 Marathon, oh, and on St. Patrick’s day! While we thought the chocolate cake was just ok, the frosting really stood out and packed a punch of Bailey’s flavor. When eaten together the cake and frosting combination was a win.

Coffee Chocolate
CakeLove-Coffee

All three of the Crusaders love coffee, so this flavor was a must when I made my selections, and this cupcake did not disappoint. While we agreed that the cake by itself was nothing extraordinary, the frosting was amazing and we could have eaten a tub of it. The cake in this instance was merely a vessel for the fantastic frosting.

Red Velvet
CakeLove-RedVel

As always, Red Velvet vexes me and my cupcake crusade. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t a stand out in this bunch. The frosting was very smooth and a bit sweet, with an interestingly different flavor to it, perhaps mascarpone and a bit of butter? I wouldn’t mind having more of that frosting, but am not sure I want it on their Red Velvet cupcake.

Salted Caramel
CakeLove-SaltedCaramel

Lovely swirls of caramel and salt crystals adorn the delicious frosting of this cupcake, sadly the cake underneath was a bit dry and crumbly. I personally loved the frosting, it was smooth, very buttery (my favorite), and Crusader Stacy agreed that it had great salted caramel flavor. Crusader Jenn thought the frosting didn’t balance the sweet and salty, so this wasn’t her favorite frosting or cupcake.

Strawberry Vanilla
CakeLove-StrawberryV
This cupcake reminded me more of Strawberry Shortcake than a cupcake. The cake was a dry and crumbly, like that of the Salted Caramel, and even though the frosting was smooth and had great flavor, it couldn’t save this cupcake from being just “ok.”

Triple Chocolate
CakeLove-TripChoc

Sweeter than the rest, I was glad I saved this chocolate explosion for last! Rich and chocolatey, Crusader Stacy wished she had a glass of milk to drink with it. The shavings on top added a nice texture. And while super sweet isn’t always my style, this is a cupcake I would eat again and again.

CakeLove obviously made some fantastic changes to their recipes and we enjoyed their re-vamped cupcakes. We cannot thank them enough for reaching out to us! Not only did it give me a reason to eat cupcakes after running 13.1 miles, but it also gave us a fresh perspective on this very accomplished bakery. (And an added bonus for our readers: Kim sent along some interview questions to Warren Brown himself! Watch for that interview tomorrow.)

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Elisa (Baltimore, MD)

Sunday visit to CakeLove at the National Harbor

Growing up, I spent many Saturdays going to work with my dad in Oxon Hill, MD. This meant that Crusader Jenn and I either spent the morning with our Grandmother (who only lived a few minutes away) having tea parties, swimming, and playing rummy cub, or we would relax in our dad’s office reading the hours away. No matter which we did during those mornings, one thing was certain, we would spend the afternoons exploring Washington DC. I have countless memories from our frequent excursions to the museums, parks, and art galleries throughout the DC area.

Despite my vast history with the DC area, I don’t go there nearly enough anymore, which means I don’t visit with my grandparents as much as should either. But I’m working on that and after a recent Sunday afternoon visit with them, I decided to stop by the National Harbor where CakeLove has a location.

To my surprise I realized that I hadn’t been to the National Harbor since it underwent its major redevelopment. I couldn’t believe all the restaurants and shops that formed a little city along the waterfront. The weather was absolutely beautiful and I wished I had more time to wander up and down the docks, browse through shops, and maybe even sit with a coffee or ice cream cone. But I was on a mission. Cupcakes.


(Look at that blue sky and those pretty fluffy clouds! The day couldn’t have been nicer!)

After wandering around the harbor for a little bit, I headed into CakeLove’s shop and was greeted by a less than enthusiastic woman. They had a good variety of flavors though, so I took a few minutes to make my final selection of a Strawberry Cheesecake cupcake and a Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Caramel cupcake.


(Strawberry Cheesecake cupcake from CakeLove.)

When I first sampled the frosting on the Strawberry Cheesecake I was surprised to find that it actually tasted just like cheesecake. The strawberries added a nice sweetness, just as they do on a typical strawberry cheesecake dessert, but there was something off putting about the cake. It was very dense, dry, and spongy, but not in a light and fluffy way. While the top of the cupcake was full of flavor, the cake itself was seriously lacking.


(Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Caramel cupcake from CakeLove.)

The Chocolate, Peanut Butter, and Caramel cupcake had this same problem. The chocolate ganache on top was decadent, the peanut butter frosting was light but had great peanut butter flavor, and the caramel added an overall richness, but the chocolate cake was bland, dense, and dry. In the end, I decided to just eat the tops off both cupcakes and discarded the cake portion.

CakeLove is celebrating 10 years of being in business, they have many locations, and the founder, Warren Brown, has hosted a show on the Food Network, written cook books and even been featured on shows like Oprah Winfrey. With all of this hype, I was really expecting more out of these cupcakes, and unfortunately they just didn’t do it for me. Maybe the consistency of the cake was due to the lack of quality control with having so many locations, or maybe it was because they refrigerate their cupcakes? (They say they do this because of health code regulations and so that the cake flavors have time to “marry overnight”, but refrigeration can cause cake to dry out quickly.)

That said, I still really enjoyed my time at the National Harbor. I look forward to returning and spending more time there, and maybe even giving CakeLove another shot. Everyone is allowed a second chance, right? 🙂

– Posted by Cupcake Crusader, Stacy (Baltimore, MD)