Second of three stories reprinted from a special edition of Cedar Valley Business Monthly magazine featuring the 2018 Cedar Valley Businesses of the Year.
CEDAR FALLS — At Scratch Cupcakery, the aroma greets you long before you walk in the door, wafting down the hall at 315 Main St. and pulling you into the bright and airy shop where generously frosted cupcakes fill glass cases lining the front counter. It’s a popular spot on the Parkade in downtown Cedar Falls — and in Waterloo, West Des Moines and Coralville.
And the powerhouse behind Scratch, which has been named Woman-Owned Business of the Year as part of The Courier’s first-ever Cedar Valley Businesses of the Year awards — is 38-year-old Natalie Brown.
In nominating Scratch — and Brown — for the honor, James Stephens said, “Natalie had a dream to own her own shop. She took a chance and ran with that dream. Her cupcakes have become known across the state and beyond.”
Prior to launching her business, Brown worked in graphic design and marketing at Orchard Hill Church for more than a dozen years and did some cooking and catering out of her home.
“I was not being as creative as I wanted to be,” she said.
So she met with the people at Community Main Street in early 2010 and asked them what they thought of her opening up a bakery in downtown Cedar Falls.
“I got a great response,” she said.
Soon after, a store front on Second Street became available, and within two weeks Brown signed the papers and turned in her notice at the church.
“We gutted the building,” she said. “We just attacked it. Took it down to the studs.”
Her goal was to be open in time for the Sturgis Falls Celebration in June of that year.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t ever do that,’” she said. “It was a blast, but it was insane.”
The shop opened June 19, 2010 — the Saturday before Sturgis Falls — but it soon became clear the Second Street site would not meet their needs for long.
“We outgrew it within a month,” Brown said.
“Little Scratch,” as Brown refers to the shop’s initial location, had one oven and staff could only bake three dozen cupcakes at a time, and there was limited cooling space.
A year after opening Scratch, Brown launched Sweet Basil Market, also in downtown Cedar Falls, and Scratch Curbside — a food truck that sells her cupcakes all over Iowa and parts of Illinois — with plans to expand into Minnesota this year.
Five months later, Brown moved her cupcake business to its current location on Main Street.
“Little Scratch had a 200-square-foot kitchen,” she said. “The current site’s kitchen is 3,000 square feet.”
In June 2012, Brown opened Scratch Too in Waterloo, followed by stores in West Des Moines and Coralville in 2013.
“We opened six retail stores in 60 months,” Brown said.
Additionally, Brown started a fundraising program in 2014. Similar to selling Girl Scout cookies, groups can raise money by selling cupcakes.
“They keep 40 percent of the proceeds,” Brown said. “We’ve raised more than $1 million in fundraising.”
The program is so popular, Brown brought on a full-time fundraising manager.
“The volume they do is crazy,” she said. “We’re booked through 2019.
“We would love to expand and add Take and Bake and our edible cookie dough (Brown’s latest venture, Just Dough, launched just before Christmas 2017) to the fundraising program.”
Scratch has a 12-person management team made up wholly of women and 150 employees.
“Our workforce is about 80 percent female,” Brown said. “Maybe more. But we have a great group of guys working for us too.”
Brown said her employees range in age from 16 to 80-something.
“I really love that part,” she said. “The older employees work really hard to teach the others. We’re developing people. They are so young. We are watching them become who they are going to be.
“It feels like a family,” Brown said.
And with good reason. Her mother is the company’s chief financial officer, and her father is the operations manager.
“We have lots of siblings working here,” she said. “The grandma of one of our managers is one of our prep bakers.”
Brown said she was honored but a bit shocked Scratch was named Woman-Owned Business of the Year.
“I don’t think of this as a woman-owned business,” she said. “I’m just a business owner. But it’s nice to be reminded.”
And Brown realizes her success puts her in the position of being a role model for other women, and especially girls.
“I love that,” she said. “It’s a whole lot of pressure, but pressure I’m more than willing to take on. But I try to be realistic about it. I tell them about the fun parts and the stressful parts. I want them to see the big picture. Our marketing is really pretty, but the reality is not always real pretty.
“I’ve been allowed to make mistakes. That happens when you own a business. Every day is different, and I love that part. And it’s really cool that I’m in a position to be able to tell them what it’s like to run a business.
“I always want my voice to be positive, not just for girls, but for anybody going into business.”
But Brown said she is not sure she would have made the leap if she had known beforehand how things were going to play out.
“I had a healthy fear,” she said. “It all happened so fast. I was making decisions on the fly. But having lived through it, I’d do it all again. I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming. I’m one of the lucky ones.
“I don’t do anything by the book. I learn as I go,” she said. “I didn’t assume if I could or couldn’t do it. And I’m not afraid anymore.”
And Brown is aware of and grateful for the support her hometown has given her.
“I can’t imagine having started this anywhere else,” she said, getting emotional. “These are so much my people. I never even had to ask for help. It was just there all the time.”
Brown tells of Cedar Falls police officers working the night shift and checking on her at Little Scratch.
“They would show up with McDonald’s sometimes,” she said. “People we didn’t even know.”
When Brown was ready to open her current Cedar Falls location, she put a call out of Facebook.
“We told them we were desperate and we needed help and people just showed up,” she said. “Ten minutes before opening we were hanging doors and painting trim. People just came. We never had to wonder if we were going to be OK.
“And eight years later, we still have that support. We launch a new product, and there’s a line out the door. We make mistakes and people have grace for us. I can’t even put into words how much our customer base means to us.”