Months into COVID-19, business owners learned one universal truth: Adapt to this fast-changing environment or proceed at your own risk. But for Warren Brown, it was a series of smart pivots he made before the pandemic that have helped him weather the storm as much as the ones he’s made since—personally and professionally.
Brown, the founder and CEO of Washington D.C.-based Countertop Productions, has been letting them eat cake, literally, for almost two decades. In 2002, he pivoted from life as a lawyer and founded CakeLove, a chain of successful bakeshops that helped fuel the modern-day cupcake boom. In 2013, he saw the market shifting and pivoted to CakeLove in a Jar, refrigerated self-servings of gooey goodness. That blossomed into Countertop Productions, which has since launched Spark Bites, a healthy, whole grain energy snack, along with an additional cake offering called Don’t Forget Cake—marking yet more pivots.
And Brown’s decision last December, to shift one of CakeLove’s primary sales channels from airlines—where it was featured as an in-flight snack—to supermarkets, has proved to be an unexpectedly prescient pivot during months of stay-at-home orders.
In other words, Brown is no stranger to the twists and turns of running a business, and that’s guided him as he’s had to adjust to pandemic-related ones.
We recently sat down with Brown to discuss how he bounced back, the new consumer trends he’s seeing, and the personal pivot that’s keeping him going.
You made a pretty big pivot just in time, shifting your primary focus to supermarkets. But it’s not easy to get on store shelves overnight. How did this unfold?
When all this started, I was convinced we were going to go out of business. Because we were heavy in the airline food catering business and we got out of that, as it happens, in December, before COVID started coming down. We wanted to switch our whole customer base to grocery and we started doing that a little more than a year ago—but it takes time to develop.
It just took a while and I knew it was going to—there’s a long sales cycle. The problem is that we were presenting product to all these grocery stores and they were loving our product, but COVID hit and we just went to the bottom of the pile. They were so busy, running out of stock of everything and trying to keep product on shelves. So I saw that we were eventually going to run out of sales. And how everyone was freaking out about business.
Once the dust settled, you started to see something interesting—new demand. I’ve had this theory for a while that the COVID-19 situation can actually be a good time to attract new customers. We’re all at home, scrolling our screens, looking for something new.
People got back to work in May or so, but there had been such a shock to the system and a slowdown to business, everyone was coming back to business with a whole fresh set of eyes. That’s been helpful because we’re getting a whole new look at our product. People are looking for more product and seeing what’s out there. And we’re set for this day and age, where public health is a priority, but people also need a treat. Spark Bites are healthy, CakeLove is indulgent. Our sales are up where product can be sold and that’s made all the difference.
The interest in Spark Bites has been especially strong, with health so top of mind these days.
Spark Bites are really good. They’re great for gut health, which is really good for the immune system, because it helps you process out all the junk that’s in your gut that you can’t otherwise get rid of. So it’s healthy, it’s gluten-free and vegan, but it’s just a nice good snack that’s a little different. And I think people are looking for healthy and different. So we’re getting a lot of interest and I'm thrilled about that. I eat them every single day. And if I don't, I really notice it.
What else has helped you bounce back?
We’ve gotten a lot of support from the United States community, if you will—supporting a black-owned business. And that’s made a huge difference too. Not just in sales. It helps to know people recognize you’re here and recognize the people behind the product, who are making it. Kind of, “We’re all in this together.” That’s been helpful.
The COVID-19 situation is, of course, happening against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. Talk about the impact that’s had.
It’s really been something else. My family and I went down to BLM Plaza in D.C. a few weeks ago and I was brought to tears. And I didn’t think I would be. But kneeling on one knee for George Floyd got to me. There’s been a lot that’s happening, of course, and I feel like after my heart stopped pounding with nervousness over where the business was going and we got some financial support, that was a shot of confidence. Because if the government is believing in my business, I should believe in my business too. We gotta give it everything we have.
On the day-to-day front, it sounds like you’ve embraced Zoom life?
We’ve been presenting to buyers over Zoom. Sometimes it’s me presenting to a group of folks I see. Sometimes it’s a one-on-one meeting. I love it because it helps to reduce lots of costs. I don’t have to travel to a trade show. I don’t have to deal with all of that transit, where it just sucks up a whole day and it’s expensive. And it seems a little more direct and to the point. Folks get right down to it. They’ve seen the product, they’ve chosen to meet with us, and it seems a little more actionable.
We first met about 15 years ago, for a video interview, so I’ve always known you to be a natural on camera. Is that an important skill for business owners to focus on now?
I think so. Because one of the most confusing things to me, I just don’t understand why people get so nervous in front of a camera. I get being nervous doing public speaking, no matter how small the group. But you add in the component of the camera, it can be a much more unsettling thing for people. I’m a fan. I definitely think the on-camera experience I've had has helped. But I don’t think it would take much to get people better ready for videoconferencing. It’s finding comfort in front of a camera and other people. It’s like, somehow in all of this, a lot more people are coming to terms with whatever it takes to be honest with themselves and other people. Embrace it.
We go way back, Warren. So as I always conclude these interviews, and especially this one: Forget business for a minute, how are you doing as a person?
I’m glad you asked. [Laughs.] I was going to say, one of the only things that’s kept me sane through this is I've been doing creative writing. I started back before COVID, around Halloween last year. I’ve been pouring a lot of my time that I haven’t been spending doing everything else. I discovered it’s more interesting than watching TV and it’s a release. And alone time is important. That's part of the human experience—time alone. Creative writing is a way of feeling like I’m having a conversation with others, these characters I've made up. Under normal circumstances, that would make me feel like I'm going crazy, because I’m talking to myself. But I think I'm surviving on a human level because I'm giving myself permission on a human level.
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