At 4:06 p.m. on a sunny Thursday afternoon, 36 people are standing in line along 33rd Street NW, waiting to cross the threshold into trendy Georgetown Cupcake. And waiting. And waiting. Two minutes later, the queue has swelled to 48.
“We’re prepared to wait as long as it takes,” says Barbara Beucler of Franklin Lakes, N.J., standing near the back of the line alongside her 9-year-old daughter, Katherine.
Out of all of Washington’s many sight-seeing destinations, the Georgetown bakery is a must-see—at least to the younger Beucler. “I wanted to see the monuments,” her mother says. “She wanted to see D.C. Cupcakes.” The elder Beucler was referring to the popular TLC series, featuring the operators of the Georgetown bakery, Katherine Kallinis and Sophie LaMontagne. “She’s a big fan of the show,” the mother explains. “I never watch the show.”
By the time the pair reaches the counter, where various cupcakes, ranging in flavor from key lime to gluten-free lava fudge, are displayed on shiny pedestals behind sneeze-shielding glass, the elder Beucler is even less enthused. “They’re a little on the small side,” she says of the sweets. “I thought they would have more height.”
I can’t help but ask whether the pair has ever heard of CakeLove, the original destination for gourmet cupcakes in the District, or Warren Brown, its celebrated proprietor.
“CakeLove? No,” the mother replies. “But we love cake.”
For the benefit of cupcake interlopers everywhere, Brown was not so long ago the biggest name in District baking—and, in fact, something of a national culinary figure. You’d see his handsome, dreadlocked mug all over television, from The Oprah Winfrey Show to various Food Network programs. His tiny U Street NW storefront, CakeLove, opened in 2002. CakeLove and its subsequent sit-down counterpart directly across the street, Love Café, were about the only cupcake game in town, save for the ultra-sugary Safeway six-pack variety. Taking full advantage of his fame, Brown would go on to expand the brand into locations in Silver Spring, Shirlington, Tysons Corner, Oxon Hill, and Fairfax.
That was then. In recent years, Brown’s celebrity has been largely supplanted by a new wave of cake-baking superstars who took the Brown formula—make a fetish out of a childhood treat—and ran with it. First and foremost among today’s rival frosters would be the telegenic sisters behind Georgetown Cupcake, whose growing cult manifests daily in lengthy lines out the door—the envy of every nightclub operator in town.
The M Street mavens are far from Brown’s only competition: Hello Cupcake, Sprinkles, Red Velvet Cupcakery, Baked & Wired, Sticky Fingers, and the ever-expanding national chain Crumbs are all slinging individual cakes at prices that used to cover a six-pack from the supermarket. There’s even a confectionery on wheels, Curbside Cupcake.
Not only have the newcomers stolen Brown’s spotlight, some have even co-opted his storyline.
You’ll remember Brown as the government lawyer-turned -baker, the guy who gave up the suit, tie, and steady job for flour stains and a dream. It’s a narrative you’ll sometimes find repeating itself in the “about” section of certain competitor’s web sites. Georgetown Cupcake, for instance: “Katherine and Sophie traded careers in fashion and private equity to pursue something a little sweeter—their passion for artful cupcakes.”
But if the one-time reigning Mr. Sweet Tooth D.C. has any bitterness toward his imitators, he’s not letting on. Much.
“It’s a free country,” says Brown, 40, lounging in a Love Café window booth overlooking U Street NW and sporting a camouflage t-shirt emblazoned with various CakeLove slogans. “I don’t have a hold on that [narrative]. What I’ve learned in speaking around the country about my career change is that people love the idea of someone following a dream. Most of these cupcake places are by people making career changes. I think it’s part of what the industry’s all about. People want to get out of what they do and people love cupcakes. So they’re like, ‘Oh, I love baking.’ And they go for it.”
The glut of sugary shops has inspired some inevitable backlash, particularly among other segments of the local food scene. “Ask me how many cupcakes I’ve eaten recently,” says chef R.J. Cooper of the forthcoming restaurant Rogue 24. “Zero!”
But Brown insists the cupcake craze isn’t close to crumbling. “People are still eating ‘em up,” he says. “What’s interesting is that with more and more places out there, it kind of gets established more… I’m really curious as to when other places will expand their menus to include other products. But I haven’t really seen that.”
Brown used to offer all sorts of other baked goods himself. “Buzz balls,” for instance, tiny éclair-like spheres filled with pastry crèmes, and “crunchy feet,” little pound cakes baked in brioche pans to lend them a crispy edge. Both confections became casualties of the frosting phenomenon. “Cupcakes just kind of eclipsed it all,” says Brown. Few noticed when he dropped the other stuff from the menu.
Determined to reassert his uniqueness in a cupcake-saturated market, Brown says he’s now plotting to bring back both creations, possibly as soon as this summer. Still, he doesn’t expect either item to ever surpass cupcakes, which remain his top seller and account for roughly 75 percent of the items inside his display cases. “I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon,” he says.
Like many entrepreneurs, Brown isn’t one to speak negatively about any level of competition. To hear him tell it, having high-end cupcake shops on virtually every corner is good for all involved. “It’s been a hell of a last couple of years,” he says. “There’s a lot more activity and buzz, people going back and forth and comparing, and the press comparing. It creates a tension.”
Still, Brown says he doesn’t make a habit of standing in line outside Georgetown Cupcake, or peeking in on other rivals, citing his lingering celebrity. “People know my face,” says Brown. Back at Georgetown Cupcake, the Beuclers would say otherwise.
It’s strange enough when rival bakers have shown up at his own shop, Brown adds. “It’s nice to meet them. But it’s a little awkward.” He gets most of his intel on other shops from third-party spies. “Friends will tell me what their experiences are,” he says.
One thing Brown has been keeping close tabs on is competitors’ prices. CakeLove’s version is by no means the cheapest cupcake on the market, costing $3.25—50 cents more than the Georgetown gals charge. But “other places that have them for less money have a much smaller cupcake,” he says. “Much smaller.” Upon visual comparison, at least, Brown appears to have a point.
Brown also remains a fervent believer in his style of frosting, the hallowed Italian meringue buttercream. To him, everything else is crap. “I don’t know exactly what everybody else is doing,” he says. “But when you feel or taste a little bit of grit in there, that’s confectioner’s sugar, and that’s sort of the standard buttercream that Magnolia and all of its cousins and children make. All of them do... It has so much sugar to give it volume.” He describes his version as a lot lighter and less sickeningly sweet. “In these, it’s the egg white meringue that comes up and that’s what we use to give volume.”
Critics haven’t always agreed with Brown’s CakeLove-centric assessment of quality. Back in 2005, Washington Post critic Tom Sietsma slammed Brown’s cakes as “over-rated.”
Over the years, eaters unhappy with CakeLove cakes have often found themselves being told that the cake was fine—but they had eaten it at the wrong temperature. Indeed, Brown’s seeming obsession with proper temperature has been a frequent critical gripe. He strongly recommends that patrons wait around 15 minutes to eat their orders so the refrigerated items can thaw to room temperature. Signage posted throughout his shops reinforces this ethic.
Rival operators, meanwhile, are less pushy about thermometer readings. “Other people have said, ‘Your biggest problem is the fact that people can’t eat it right away,’” Brown says. “‘They’ve got to wait. You’re toying with them. Like, what the hell is your problem?’”
In an age of sharp cupcake competition, though, even Brown has become a bit more accommodating of patrons’ precious time. “We’ve got a microwave pretty much in all stores now,” he says. “You want us to nuke it? We’ll nuke it for you. Ten seconds.” Not that Brown would recommend it: “It’s not what I would do, ever.”
But the pushback now seems rather ironic, in his view, given the ridiculous wait times just to get into other bakeries. “What kills me is this whole thing with temperature, the people who say ‘I can’t believe you would make me wait.’ Then you get people who are waiting in line at other places for a hell of a lot longer than 15 minutes.”
CakeLove, 1506 U St. NW, (202) 588-7100
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery