About five years ago, Natalie DuBose was on the job, driving her regular route from the hotel to the airport, when she had an "aha" moment.
"I was driving to the airport to pick up some hotel guests when this lightbulb just came on," recalls DuBose. "I thought to myself, either you need to figure out what you are going to do that follows your passion or you are going to be driving a hotel shuttle and toting luggage for the rest of your life."
It's difficult to imagine DuBose as being anything but the face of Natalie's Cakes and More (100 South Florissant Road, Ferguson; 314-801-7064),
the Ferguson bakery that was thrust into the national spotlight in the chaos that followed the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer in 2014. And indeed, growing up, DuBose seemed destined to be a baker, shadowing her father in the kitchen and trying to unlock the secrets of his recipes.
"My dad was an old-school baker. He dumped things and never measured, and I was fascinated by how he could do that and have it turn out perfect every time," says DuBose. "He wouldn't tell me how to do it, so I just followed him around and watched and tried to guesstimate."
Growing up and into adulthood, DuBose found solace in baking as she worked three jobs and went through personal difficulties, including a terrible car accident that nearly killed her. Her recovery felt like a second chance and pushed her to be more mindful of living life to its fullest. That meant going for her dream of opening a bakery.
Unable to afford a place right off the bat, DuBose had to start small, first baking cakes for friends and family. As her confidence grew, she looked into renting a booth at the flea market near her home, only to be discouraged by the cost.
"It was $75, but at the time, going through a divorce, having two kids in daycare and having to pay rent, it was too much for me," DuBose explains. "But I decided that if I made $75 worth of product, it would be like fronting the money to myself, so I did it. I was scared to death."
DuBose sold out of everything on her first day at the market. The next week, she sold out again. She decided to increase production and still kept selling through everything. That success was the push she needed to take the leap.
One day when she was out grocery shopping, DuBose saw a "for lease" sign in one of the windows of the south Florissant Road commercial district. There were several people interested in the building, so DuBose had to grab the landlord's attention. She put together a business plan by doing research at the library.
"The only business plan books they had were medical office businesses," DuBose recalls. "So I took out the words "medical office," subbed in "bakery," and put pictures of my cakes in where there were pictures of office equipment."
DuBose beat out 23 competitors for the building and seemed to be well on her way. Then, just two weeks later, unrest broke out in Ferguson that would change her life.
"All throughout, a woman who seemed to be leading the movement in the area promised me that nothing would happen to my shop. I believed her," DuBose recalls. "Then I got the call from a neighbor that the shop had been broken into. My spirits were crushed. I was just flooding tears and knew I needed to get down there."
DuBose left her home and headed down to the store, only to find a scene that she describes as being out of the film Independence Day
. Decorations the community had worked to put up were strewn in the street, together with shards of broken glass. On her right, a police car burned; to her left a store was on fire. When she got close to her shop, she saw the furniture from the neighboring law office sticking out of her front window.
"I just started to cry, and someone came up to me and asked if I was OK," DuBose recalls. "I didn't realize it, but that was a reporter who had just snapped my picture."
That photo would go viral, inspiring an outpouring of support from across the country. The next morning, she went in to her shop only to find busloads of people who had arrived from all over to help with cleanup. They'd come with trashcans and brooms; two elderly women even presented her with a trash can full of baking pans, telling DuBose that they were too frail to help with cleanup but they wanted her to know that she should keep baking.
Then her phone rang, and the woman on the other end of the line had seen her picture in the paper and wanted to help. She asked if DuBose had ever heard of GoFund Me. She hadn't, and thought the woman might be calling as part of a scam when she began asking for personal information. However, she felt she had nothing to lose, and she gave the caller everything she needed.
That GoFund Me campaign would collect a staggering $125,000 by the very next day, allowing DuBose to not only rebuild, but provide funding to several other neighboring businesses. It was, in her words, a "domino effect of opportunity": First, she was approached by the CEO of Schnucks to do one of her signature cakes for their stores. Then came Washington University, which requested cookies for the university food service.
However, nothing prepared her for when Starbucks, including CEO Howard Schultz himself, visited her store and ask her to produce cakes for five of the company's locations.
"It's only recently that I was driving by a Starbucks and realized that I am actually selling cakes there," DuBose laughs. "I didn't know how we were going to do it at the time, but one of the people from there named Jason told me that you say yes first and figure out how to do it next. That is the best advice I ever received."
These days, DuBose is still baking, but she sees herself in a much larger role. Because she was the recipient of such generosity, she feels she has a responsibility to give back, coordinating with several community programs meant to help young people find their paths. As busy as she is, she doesn't often have time to stop and reflect, but when she does, she can't believe that just a handful of years ago, she was driving a shuttle bus and now she is a community leader — and doing what she loves.
"I tell everyone that if I can do it, you can do it," she says. "You have to put your mind to it, be dedicated and be focused, but if you do, blessings will come your way. You just have to find a way to do what you love."
DuBose took a break from preparing her signature caramel cake to share her thoughts on the St. Louis food and beverage community, her passion for roller skating and why there is little she loves more than a good tuna noodle casserole.
What is one thing people don’t know about you that you wish they did?
That I love to roller skate. If you come into my shop you’d know that, but if you've never been in, you wouldn't know that's my other passion.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you?
Saying a prayer in the car on the way to school.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
You know that television show where the girl could stop time? I would love to be able to just put my fingers together and do that. I've been going so fast I haven't been able to sit down and absorb all that's happened.
What is the most positive thing in food, wine or cocktails that you’ve noticed in St. Louis over the past year?
I’m seeing a lot of new business, and I’m excited because it means people are finally taking that step of faith. It’s great you can go to these different places like Stix & Ice. I love that place! I love that people are taking a chance and bringing to life their own little creations.
What is something missing in the local food, wine or cocktail scene that you’d like to see?
I think we have a lot of variety out here, but what's missing are 24-hour places that aren’t chains.
Who is your St. Louis food crush?
Crushed Velvet. Their story is phenomenal. It's these two ladies who went beyond all odds to start own restaurant. I never eat all the food on my plate except for there.
Who’s the one person to watch right now in the St. Louis dining scene?
This strip of Ferguson. We just received a letter that we've been accepted as a main street, and I want to see how that will come together.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality?
Butter! It's a little sweet and a little salty and will make you blow up and be fat, haha.
If you weren’t working in the restaurant business, what would you be doing?
I would still be driving the hotel shuttle with my former manager, Shawn — whatever hotel he was managing.
Name an ingredient never allowed in your restaurant.
Salt. Most baking ingredients already have salt in them. Also, I use only butter. You shouldn’t put oil in anything when you are baking.
What is your after-work hangout?
I’m at the shop sixteen to eighteen hours a day, but I love to go to the skating rink. When I put skates on and I'm on floor I don’t see anyone else and am in tune with music and just do my thing. It’s a release. I can let everything go for that one hour.
What’s your food or beverage guilty pleasure?
Tuna noodle casserole. I could eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. You have to make it right though. I can’t eat everyone’s!
What would be your last meal on earth?
Tuna noodle casserole with a strawberry mango margarita.
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