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Building a business from ‘Scratch’

Natalie Brown

Natalie Brown admits she wasn’t a business person prior to opening the original Scratch Cupcakery. She’s a self-described risk-taker and isn’t much for setting traditional goals. “I’ve found over time that if I work specifically toward a set of goals, I let other opportunities pass by. I have short-term goals, but those are pretty fluid,” she said.

The Cedar Falls, Iowa, native spent some nine years in college working toward a bachelor’s degree before finally getting it done through Upper Iowa University’s online program in 2006 with a degree in public administration. “Honestly, education taught me not to give up,” Natalie said, “and you’re never too old to do what you love.” For nearly 15 years, Natalie worked in marketing and graphic design before jumping into the business sector.

The original Scratch – coined “Little Scratch” – opened June 18, 2010, and less than a year later Sweet Basil Market, a separate bulk and gourmet foods store in Cedar Falls was added to the family. “That opened out of necessity. We weren’t doing the quantities to get bulk discounts for Scratch, so Scratch was purchasing from Sweet Basil,” she said. Now Scratch is large enough to get bulk item discounts, and Sweet Basil has established enough of a local market to operate on its own. Scratch Too in Waterloo, Iowa, opened last summer and the third Scratch location opened in January in West Des Moines. A fourth Scratch location is on the docket to be added later this year at a yet-to-be-disclosed location.

A baker from a young age, Natalie said she has always paid close attention to what was happening around her and learned from others. Her parents were supportive of her endeavors as a young baker – her father had cookies in his lunch whenever and her mother took a cake to work every week. It was the family’s added skills – her father is a small business owner and her mother is an accountant – that provided a sound base for the new businesses. “Once we put all of our skills together as a family, the decisions were easier. Don’t read ‘easy.’ Nothing has been easy. In fact, everything has been hard. But I’m learning every day, and I’m a strong believer that when you stop learning, you stop growing. And growth is pretty much my life right now,” Natalie added.

For nearly a decade, she catered from home. She honed her skill and tweaked the basic recipes she developed as a kid to fit adult pallets. “I was given a lot of grace to try new products…sometimes succeeding…and sometimes with a major fail,” she said. “My clients taught me what they loved and what they didn’t. Now, we experiment in the (Scratch) kitchen constantly. As a staff, we develop new flavor ideas, test them and see what happens!”

To kick off 2013, Scratch introduced 18 new flavors to their already lengthy list.

The Scratch mission is: “Making people smile, one cupcake at a time,” and Natalie said she and her 98 staff members work toward that goal every day. The secret to the success of Scratch is not just a delicious recipe; it is customer service. “I could tell you the canned phrases about high-quality ingredients and give a speech about packaging and marketing; but in the end, Scratch is really about great cupcakes and great customer service,” she said. “We celebrate life with people. We’ve been a part of family events from the engagement box of cupcakes to that couple’s wedding, their pregnancy announcement, birth of the baby, their first anniversary and baptism….we’ve gotten to celebrate with people. That’s not about the cupcakes. It’s about the experience; the event. It’s not about selling the cupcakes, but to continue to celebrate with families! It doesn’t hurt to have a great cupcake, of course.”

Another important facet of being a business owner is also making a positive impact in the area by giving back to her community. Natalie is known for her donation of product to local nonprofits. Her focus on philanthropy while providing jobs in the Cedar Valley earned Natalie a spot on that area’s ‘20 Under 40’ list for 2012.

“The philanthropy part for me has always been important,” she said. “To be able to give back to nonprofits in the community is huge. I worked with a church for more than a decade, so I understand what nonprofits go through to be able to provide things to their clients.

“A big part of my personal mission for Scratch is that I love being able to give back. It is a big deal for me.” As a result, the Scratch family is working to implement a program with the staff to volunteer in the community as a part of their job with the company.

Natalie said she felt humbled and honored to be a part of this year’s ‘20 Under 40’ list. “I look at who else is on the list and just love the group of people I’m associated with. I never loved being in the spotlight. I’ve consistently been behind the scenes. So this has forced me to step outside of myself a bit, which is an interesting feeling. It also pushes me to work harder – be more, do more, be smarter,” Natalie said. “As a class, we’re challenged to shift from being mentored to the ones doing the mentoring. That’s some pressure, but it is good pressure. It reminds me that business is not everything. Who we invest in and how we encourage others is just as, if not more, important.”

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