Natalie DuBose Offers a New Image of Ferguson
There’s the Ferguson, Missouri, the world knows.
Demonstrations erupted in the small St. Louis suburb after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed in August 2014, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. Months later, a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, setting off a second wave of protests, vandalism and arson, all documented by national and international media.
Then there’s the Ferguson that Natalie knows.
“It’s a community of various races, ages, classes of people. It’s family-oriented. It’s not that war zone that it was depicted as in the media at one point,” said Natalie DuBose. She opened Natalie’s Cakes & More in Ferguson’s downtown business district less than two months before the riots.
Related video: Why Starbucks Opened a Store in Ferguson, Missouri
Her bakery was a victim of the rage when protestors smashed storefront windows. Now, nearly two years after one of the most challenging times in her life, DuBose believes, “Hope is in the air. We’re a resilient community. Standing up against that wall, we came out stronger than ever.”
‘I wanted more for my kids’
Born and raised in the heart of north St. Louis, DuBose has nine brothers and sisters. Baking was a hobby that started with her dad. He created recipes from scratch, including his caramel and chocolate cake, while DuBose watched and took notes.
“He was what’s called a ‘dumper’ – an old school cook who dumps everything in a bowl without measuring at all,” she said with an expression that conveyed both admiration and aversion for his style.
Baking and decorating cakes became therapeutic for DuBose when her marriage ended in divorce. A single mom with two children, she worked two jobs and found a way to sell her baked goods at a weekend flea market. Each weekend she brought more products to sell. And each weekend she sold out.
“Mind you, with my hotel job I worked an eight hour shift and was bringing home a biweekly paycheck of roughly $358. That’s from a fulltime job. My $75 investment on the weekend for a flea market booth resulted in $250 for two days,” she recalled. “I knew then I had something.”
With savings from her weekend bake sales, DuBose was able to sign a lease and open her shop on June 29, 2014. She hired her dad as a part-time baker – and insisted that he follow her recipes. Her mom helped out too. DuBose continued working a night shift as a van driver for a local hotel. After taking her kids to school in the morning, she went to work at her bakery until it was time to pick them up from school.
“My kids were my inspiration. I wanted more for them,” she said. “I had a good childhood, but I wanted to give them more.”
‘I couldn’t do anything but cry’
Natalie’s Cakes & More lost business during the first demonstrations following Michael Brown’s death. She lost even more in November, when a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed Brown.
A few days before the rioting made its way to her street, South Florissant, DuBose had provided food and water to demonstrators whose target seemed to be the nearby Ferguson Police Station. “I believed them when they said, ‘Miss Natalie, we're not going to hurt your business.’”
DuBose’s children were with her the night a neighbor called to tell her protestors were damaging her building. Standing in front of her bakery with her kids, DuBose described a scene that she said looked like it was from an action movie.
“It was insane,” she said. “Police cars were on fire. Glass was all over the street. As I got closer to my bakery, I could see furniture from the neighboring law office was sitting in my shop. All the windows were broken. All my equipment was damaged. I couldn’t do anything but cry.”
With worldwide media attention on the small community of Ferguson, a news crew captured video of DuBose crying as she looked at her shattered storefront. That video resulted in donations from around the world as more than $100,000 was raised to help her rebuild her shop. Reporters asked DuBose what she was going to do with the money. Her simple answer then was, “I’m going to keep my shop open. I’m going to help the rest of Ferguson.” And today she maintains, “No matter how big we get, I will always have this shop.”
A frequent visitor to Natalie’s Cakes & More turned out to be someone DuBose would call “my angel.”
Nancy Siemer, district manager Starbucks License Division, walked into Natalie’s to ask how she was doing. Over the next few months, Siemer introduced Dubose to Starbucks leaders who were interested in supporting entrepreneurs by selling their packaged food and snacks in Starbucks stores.
Formed in 2015, Retail Branded Partnerships seeks out small, local companies with innovative products and brings them to Starbucks stores. Some of the food options are offered regionally, while others are carried in stores across the U.S. Starbucks has launched more than 15 small brands in select stores in the past year.
“I’ll never forget when I met Mesh Gelman (Starbucks senior vice president, Retail Branded Partnerships) and he said to me, ‘Natalie if you’ve never dreamed big before, I want you to start dreaming big now.’ I’ve been dreaming big ever since and things have been happening. Opportunities are coming.”
Natalie’s Cakes & More has grown from two employees initially to more than 22. DuBose’s signature caramel cake from Natalie’s Cakes & More is now available in 30 St. Louis-area stores. It will also be in Starbucks first store in Ferguson. That means a lot to her.
“The new Starbucks store is a wonderful symbol that the community is worth investing in,” DuBose said. “I love this community, and eventually the world will get to know who we really are.”