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Interview: Warren Brown: Litigator Turned Baker

Warren Brown started off his legal career in 1999 as a litigator with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ("HHS") in Washington, D.C., prosecuting civil cases in health care fraud for the government. Brown found the work interesting, but it didn’t engage him emotionally. In less than a year, he was focusing his personal time - up to 3 to 5 hours a night - on a new passion - baking cakes.

After initial cake sales convinced Brown that he could make a business out of his passion, he took a leave of absence from HHS and maxed out his credit card to buy the basic equipment (including an oven and a double-door refrigerator). At the same time, he started work on the business plan that eventually netted him a $125,000 SBA loan from City First Bank.

After almost a year and a half of preparation and really hard work, Brown opened his bakery, CakeLove, in the U Street corridor in Washington, D.C. A second location recently opened in Silver Spring, MD, and the company also operates a website featuring online sales of the company's cakes and other pastries. Brown has also become something of a media personality with appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the launch of his own show -- Sugar Rush-- on the Food Network in which Brown meets award-winning pastry chefs to discover the tips and tricks behind incredible desserts.

Click below for Brown's interview.

JD Bliss (JDB):  We’ve profiled other lawyers-turned-entrepreneurs, but none who have earned a spot on Inc. Magazine’s annual “Most Fascinating Entrepreneurs” list – along with Martha Stewart, Richard Branson and Michael Dell – by opening a bakery devoted to making cakes from scratch.  Before we talk about the journey, how about the start:  why did you choose to attend law school and pursue an initial career as a lawyer?

Brown:  My goal in going to law school was to develop the credentials for raising an effective voice in reproductive health education.  After I got my undergraduate degree from Brown University in 1993, I worked as a reproductive health educator in Providence, RI and in Los Angeles, and soon found that our curriculum simply didn’t answer the real life concerns that kids have – and that it was a tough challenge to get school board and PTA approval for anything more effective.  I thought that combining a law degree with advanced public health training would give me the credibility I needed for advocacy, so I went back to school and in 1998 received dual degrees in law and Public Health from George Washington University.

JDB:  You entered practice with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, DC.  Did you focus on reproductive health issues there as you had hoped?

Lawyer PastriesBrown:  Frankly, I realized even in law and graduate school that the time wasn’t right for the kind of substantial change I wanted to see, and that there were few opportunities to make the kind of difference I hoped for.  I started at HHS in 1999 in the Inspector General’s Office, prosecuting civil cases in health care fraud for the government.  It was interesting work and I liked the people I worked with, but it simply didn’t engage me emotionally.  In less than a year I was focusing my personal time on something I really had become passionate about – baking cakes, cupcakes and other pastries.

JDB:  Where did you get that passion, and your skills to pursue it?

Brown:  I’d been cooking since I was a kid in the Cleveland area – in fact, my burritos were a favorite dinner of my father’s.  Baking wasn’t part of the picture until I was out of law school.  I had always thought baking was too involved, but I made a New Year’s resolution for 1999 that I would drop my fear of flour and learn the best ways to work with sugar. There’s a notion that baking is so scientific, and has to be done according to a formula, but I simply don’t believe that’s true.  I didn’t start out to follow recipes or be under the spell of other people; I experimented for a year or so, looking at basic recipes – one of my favorites is still a lemon curd cake recipe from Bon Appetit magazine – but developing new directions of my own.  My cake baking just naturally developed along the European line, with a homemade look and taste and plenty of reliance on high quality ingredients and baking from the heart.

JDB:  It’s a big step from making homemade cakes to opening a bakery.  How did that process develop?

Brown:  By January of 2000, a year after I made my New Year’s resolution, I was enthusiastic enough about cake baking and frustrated enough with my legal work that I decided to start selling what I baked.  I still worked nine to six as an attorney, then I would come home to my apartment and bake for three to five hours a night.  It was really hard and exhausting, yet energizing at the same time.  This went on for ten months, and the level of acceptance that I got for my cakes convinced me that I could make a business out of them.  I had never done anything like that before, and couldn’t really find anyone else who had.  A shop in New York City, Cupcake Café, did make some of the types of cakes that I was focusing on, but also sold doughnuts and other items that I had no interest in – it’s the cakes that really excite people.  I was convinced that I had a unique idea, and decided to pursue it.

JDB:  How did you get from that idea to the opening of the bakery – the step-by-step process of developing a business plan, financing, and the location?

Brown:  I got a lot of help from many friends, family and colleagues, for which I am very grateful.  I thought it was wise not to cut my ties with my legal practice all at once.  I took a three-month leave of absence from HHS and leased space in a carryout kitchen for $310 a month.  I maxed out my credit card at $10,000 to buy the basic equipment, including an oven and a double-door refrigerator.  I enrolled in a local course on entrepreneurship, where I met the lending officer of City First Bank.  The bank became a major funding source for me and supported my funding with a loan for $125,000 that was guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.  None of this would have happened without a business plan, which took me months to develop – along with the help of a college friend, who helped me create the cash flow model.  The whole time I continued to bake cakes and hold open houses to promote them, and the response I got at one open house at a local art gallery was really encouraging.  I made the decision to officially leave HHS and located the kind of shop I wanted in the U Street Corridor area of Washington, where there are a lot of bars, restaurants and other small businesses.  I had help from a lot of people, but did a lot myself too – including things like assembling counters, then finding they were too big to fit in through the door.   Finally, after almost a year and a half of preparation and really hard work, I opened my bakery, CakeLove (with a companion website now at

JDB:  During the startup period, was your background as a lawyer helpful to you in handling all the details?

Brown:  More than anything else, training in the law was a help to my overall mindset.  I always felt that the law was a process of bringing together unrelated facts and making them an understandable whole, and that’s what I did whether I was creating a recipe or a business plan.  The business plan especially was like doing a legal brief:  I’d take it to the bank, they’d give me comments, I’d give them a revision.  The whole effort basically meant making an argument for supporting my business, the type of persuasion that litigators have to do all the time.

JDB:  Your discussion about convincing the bank raises another question:  how did you convince yourself that leaving the law and opening your bakery was the right thing to do?

Brown:  The great thing about deciding to be an entrepreneur is that you have no one to blame but yourself if things don’t work out.  I felt that things simply weren’t working out for me as a lawyer the way I wanted them too, and one of the earliest lessons I learned in the law was the power of saying “no, I don’t want to do this.”  During my first summer of law school, I started an internship that was just all wrong – I left after three weeks.  What shocked me was the reaction I got when I told a few close colleagues:  I thought they’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself for quitting, but instead they all congratulated me for having the courage to do it.  That experience helped give me the confidence to leave the law.  I felt that I would find support if I did it for the right reasons, and for me the right reasons were that I had a product people liked and that I liked making for them. 

JDB:  One of the proofs of that is the impressive media coverage you’ve gotten almost from the start of your business:  in the Washington Post and People Magazine, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and many local and national business publications.  Was the media coverage something you worked to develop?

Brown:  I’ve been very grateful for the attention, and it’s been a driving engine of our success, but it wasn’t something I worked proactively to create.  One element in the coverage, and the success of our business, is that people simply love homemade cakes, and that’s basically all we’ve made and sold.  A bigger part of it, though, was that the idea of someone following their passion really resonated with people.  The message of CakeLove is finding your passion and working to reach your goals, and I’ve been grateful that others have helped me tell that story.  It’s one I’ve decided to try to tell myself, by writing a combined cookbook and business philosophy.

JDB:  What’s next for CakeLove?

Brown:  We’ve been growing and have plans to continue to grow.  There are now more than 15 people working for me in the bakery and in a coffee shop that we opened across the street last year.  We plan to add a new location in Silver Spring, Maryland this year, and intend to grow into Virginia and elsewhere in the greater DC area.  Ideally I’d love to grow into other regions of the country, whether it’s Northern Ohio where I grew up, or the West Coast where I taught after graduating from college.  It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to.

JDB:  Has being an entrepreneur been as satisfying as you hoped?

Brown:  It’s been extraordinarily satisfying.  I’ve learned more than I thought possible, and I’ve found myself looking back and examining the course of my life more than I expected.  I recently called my high school basketball coach just to talk about how I realized I’m applying the lessons that he taught me about life.  The whole process has seemed like a natural progression for me, even though there have been plenty of frustrations.  I try to keep an even keel and avoid lashing out at problems – it doesn’t get the work done any faster.  Overall, despite the hard work, CakeLove has improved the quality of my life because it’s all about following my passion.

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