Free Enterprise Staff  | June 7, 2016

Thinking outside the pan: One entrepreneur’s jarring new take on cakes

Celebrity chef Warren Brown is a rising star on the American culinary scene. Over the years, he has hosted the popular baking show Sugar Rush on the Food Network, written a series of dessert cookbooks, and launched a brick-and-mortar-turned-online cake empire that spans the country.

Never one to stand still, Brown’s current focus is on growing his company, CakeLove, which these days is giving dessert enthusiasts something new and exciting to chew on with a rather self-explanatory product called CakeLove in a Jar.

CakeLove's Warren Brown

CakeLove’s Warren Brown

“People know cake, understand cake, and it’s an exciting, indulging item,” Brown said in an interview. “But it’s not all that convenient to carry if a customer only wants one slice.”

Alas, Brown’s cake-in-a-jar concept was born, and it has turned into a booming business. It’s proof that it’s never too late for entrepreneurs—even the most successful ones—to reinvent their companies.

“We’re like a startup company all over again,” said Brown, who is preparing to speak next week at America’s Small Business Summit in Washington. “We’re small, we’re scrappy and lean, but we’re making it work.

While Brown and his team still sell traditional cakes and cupcakes from their online shop, it’s his jarred cakes that get him really excited these days. The cake jars come in 12 flavors, including salty caramel, red velvet, and “The King,” which is inspired by Elvis Presley’s favorite peanut butter-and-banana sandwich.

Though the jars launched in 2014, they started achieving real commercial momentum last year. Recently Brown has signed agreements with big grocery chains such as Costco and Whole Foods, and airlines like Norwegian Air to carry his jars.

“There’s a lot more work behind the scenes than people see,” he said. “We actually started brainstorming about cake jars in 2013, which goes to show how hard it is to start something new. Getting the product into the different markets has been the plan, but penetrating [those markets] takes a lot of time.”

Venturing into new territory isn’t new territory for Brown. His career is jam-packed with instances where he rolled the dice on new things with great success, starting with his decision in 2000 to quit practicing law and open a bakery. However, those endeavors weren’t always a piece of cake.

“It was lonely in the beginning, because I would rent a baking space and spend all of my time alone,”

CakeLove in a Jar

CakeLove in a Jar

he said. “I didn’t realize how desperate you become for human interaction when you’re alone.”

The gambit worked. Brown opened his first shop in 2002 and later became a food celebrity in his own right, featured regularly in national news media. His fame even extended beyond the kitchen: People magazine named him one of America’s 50 top bachelors in 2001.

Unlike some entrepreneurs, Brown makes a concentrated effort to separate his name and face from the company brand. “What I really want is a brand that is stronger than just me, “ he said. “So we don’t have my image, name or anything on the jar; it’s not part of the branding or experience.”

It’s a marketing lesson that Brown credits to Coca-Cola founder John Pemberton. “You recognize the brand Coca-Cola, but you probably wouldn’t blink twice at the name Pemberton, and that’s because the brand is what’s important. That’s what I want.”

Another lesson he’s keen to share with small business owners? Stay hungry and keep looking for the next thing. His cake jars may be doing well, but Brown isn’t resting on his laurels.

He recently co-founded D.C. Taste Buds, a line of marijuana-infused edibles for the medical marijuana market. The line will include sweets that are laced with marijuana and sold across D.C.—one of a handful of states where recreational marijuana use is legal. He can’t go into too much detail just yet about what to expect, but he says that the legal marijuana market is a booming new industry.

At the end of the day, the most important thing for small business owners to remember is the importance of tenacity, Brown says. Plain and simple, the main ingredient in the recipe for entrepreneurial success has to be hard work: “Creating a business is hard,” he says. “You have to keep going ‘til it works.”