Thirteen years after Warren Brown launched a U Street bakery that put him on the Food Network and Washington on the celebrity-chef radar, CakeLove has gone to pot.
Well, jars, if we’re going to get technical about it.
Brown and his buttercream sweets created a baked-goods buzz years before people thought about standing in line for cupcakes in this town. But the once- expanding CakeLove empire has collapsed, and the original and last remaining CakeLove outpost will close Dec. 31 as Brown turns his attention to what he hopes will be the next craze to capture America’s sweet tooth: jarred cakes.
“Sign of the times,” Brown, 45, mused, a sentiment that applies to baked goods as much as the continually changing face of a block he helped revitalize.
When CakeLove opened at 15th and U streets NW in spring 2002, “it was a totally different set of circumstances on our block,” Brown said. People were surprised he chose an area still dimmed by the 1968 riots for a cake shop. To the west, the scent of beer wafted from the rowdy bars of Adams Morgan. Slowly, to the east, independent boutiques, clubs and hookah bars sprang up in the early 2000s, and CakeLove, with its semi-industrial look and kitschy product line, served as the best-known symbol of the role young entrepreneurs could play in the revival.
Brown, who had been a lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services, had already cracked the pop culture radar in 2001 as one of People magazine’s Top 50 Bachelors as a 30-year-old. He did what so many Washington lawyers dreamed of doing: He quit to pursue his passion.
Success was rapid. In 2005, Brown landed his own Food Network series, “Sugar Rush,” in which he traveled the country in search of interesting, outrageous desserts.
At its frosty peak, Brown’s local empire included CakeLove locations in Tysons Corner, Arlington and National Harbor. (A Love Cafe spinoff, across from the U Street shop, closed in 2012.) He has published two CakeLove cookbooks, plus two others: “United Cakes of America: Recipes Celebrating Every State” and “Pie Love.”
But we now live in the age of the cronut, or whatever will inevitably replace it, and the cupcake craze can no longer support so much square footage.
“We’ve known for years that people are shopping in stores less and less,” Brown said. “The question has always been, when are we going to pull the trigger to totally depart from having a brick-and-mortar presence?”
Even in their heyday, Brown’s cupcakes were not without detractors. “Count us among all those who complain that despite Brown’s fame, CakeLove’s cupcakes are too dry,” The Washington Post’s Food section wrote in its 2008 Cupcake Wars, which evaluated specimens from 16 bakeries in search of a champion (the chocolate ganache cupcake from Georgetown Cupcake).
The solution, Brown hopes, is CakeLove in a Jar, a concoction that looks like a cross between a toddler cake smash and the time-honored college dorm snack of Betty Crocker frosting eaten straight from the can.
Yael Krigman, another former lawyer and the owner of Baked by Yael in Woodley Park, which specializes in cake pops, understands the pressure bakers feel to come up with the next new thing, especially when there are already so many cupcakes on the market that it can be difficult to distinguish among them.
“I think people will always want a cupcake,” she said.
The persistent lines outside Georgetown Cupcake suggest she may be right. But the jars, Brown says, have solved a whole series of angst-inducing problems customers have cited about cupcakes: that they’re too messy, too prone to going stale and never have the right balance of frosting to cake.
Locally, the jars are available at stores such as Whole Foods Market, Yes Organic Market, Glen’s Garden Market, Dawson’s Market and the Market at River Falls, plus restaurants such as Lebanese Taverna, GCDC Grilled Cheese Bar and PoppaBox. They’re also served on select Norwegian Air flights.
On Saturday, CakeLove will host a “cake-cutting ceremony” to say goodbye to its longtime home and mark its new chapter. Brown’s reinvented cake jar operation will be based in a production facility in Alexandria, near the Van Dorn Metro station; Brown said one of his employees may take over the U Street space and operate it as a bakery that specializes in bread.
“I had no idea that it would end up with cake in a jar,” Brown said. “I had no clue.”
Lavanya Ramanathan and Abha Bhattarai contributed to this report.