Scratch Cupcakery’s ‘Secret Recipes’

I thought that headline might get your attention …

After all, with over 62,000 social media followers across the region (all platforms), more than a handful of you might like to know the secret to, say, Scratch Cupcakery’s Cookie n’ Cream Truffle cupcakes! But, alas, my research and recent inquiries with Scratch owner Natalie Brown were in search of far different ingredients …


Scratch Cupcakery recently celebrated its fourth birthday, having started in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as “Little Scratch,” then expanded to storefronts in Waterloo, Coralville and West Des Moines, Iowa, in addition to Cedar Falls. Each is an independently owned, limited liability company (LLC). Brown shared that the key is controlled growth.

“Sales remain encouraging throughout our store openings, and I made a commitment very early on not to franchise … not to open locations unless we could afford to do so.” 

Scratch Cupcakery’s mission – to “make people smile, one cupcake at a time,” to create an experience (and a relationship) with its customers, to play a role in their celebrations, and to be involved in their communities – is at the core of its success.

But that, too, is only a portion of the recipe.

The “secret ingredients,” which obviously aren’t secrets, are what Natalie Brown refers to as The 5th Location, Scratch Cupcakery’s Curbside mobile unit, and its extraordinary utilization of social media to better engage its customers.

Much like Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s vision for his coffee shops becoming his customers’ Third Place – that stop you make between home and work, often via a drive-through – Brown and her team, knew early on that Curbside, a simple food truck, would play a key role in its success, launching it back in 2011.

While the concept isn’t new – some historians cite “chuckwagons” of the Old West or New York’s “night lunch wagons” in the late-1800s as early predecessors – Brown always had been fascinated by such mobile units and had a food truck as part of the original Scratch business plan in 2010.

Further, in the niche market of baked goods, no one was taking such a product “mobile” in this region to the customer, so Curbside was the first mobile cupcake truck in Iowa, and in its third rendition (the current Curbside truck came to Iowa from California), it remains the only food truck of its type in the entire state.

What truly brings these ingredients together and makes them congeal, however, is Scratch’s use of social media as a small business, especially as it serves Curbside.

I learn the most about our customers through social media and no other outlet. In no other arena do we have customers telling us exactly what they want or don’t want, where we should be, and how many people will be there,” Brown explained.


Rather than simply drive Curbside around like “an ice cream truck,” she and her team started by posting to Facebook. That spiraled over the last couple years to an engaging website (designed by Far Reach), a blog, and accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. Brown says Scratch gets numerous daily emails and online posts requesting Curbside coming to their community for events, festivals or parties. In many ways, Scratch’s “raving fans,” as Ken Blanchard describes them, employ what is still the most effective and affordable advertising available today, a savvy, high-tech “word-of-mouth.” Last year, when Curbside ventured to Spencer, Iowa, in the far northwest part of the state, the social media pre-“buzz” drew both mainstream-media attention and long customer lines, with product selling out in 50 minutes.


So, what exactly is the recipe for Scratch’s success? Three simple ingredients – and questions for all of us to think about in our own enterprises:

1. People First. Natalie Brown often refers to her team as her “Scratch Family,” and she hires with a “mission in mind.” Team members know they’re to create a “a feeling of happiness with each little cupcake,” that it’s all about the spirit of celebration in every customer and community experience. These team members know it’s all about relationships – internally and externally – and they serve by The Golden Rule, often featuring some sort of customer service message or training content at monthly staff meetings and/or as part of their annual manager retreats. Question: Every organization has two sets of customers – internal and external – where relationships need nurturing. Are people truly priority one in yours?

2. Less is More. Scratch’s business plan primarily focuses on two things – cupcakes and “smiles.” While there may be ancillary items like buttercream frostings or “frosting shots” available, it’s a singular quality product and a razor-sharp customer focus that carries the day and also makes the business both successful and manageable.  Question: If you “can’t be everything to everybody,” and no one can, where might you refine your focus?

3. Go Mobile. While the Curbside mobile food truck was always part of the business plan, the team’s understanding and execution of engaging customers through social media platforms has been key to their success. They not only take product and service to where customers are with Curbside – in addition to their established store-fronts – they also engage their “customer-fans” daily to better serve them across all platforms and channels. Question(s): How might you “go mobile”? Can any of your products or services be “unchained”? How are you better engaging your customers online daily, and what is that strategy? Who is leading it?

Andrew and Emma

I remember when my own kids, Andrew and Emma, tried going “curbside” years ago with their “pop-and-gum business.” By the time word spread and enough people knew they were established on our street (and after some price and product adjustments), they did all right (thanks to everyone’s first and best customer – “Mom”).  But there is something in Scratch Cupcakery’s “recipe” it has truly mastered in just four years, something any business or nonprofit – even schools or churches – could benefit from.

It’s all about the ingredients …







One thought on “Scratch Cupcakery’s ‘Secret Recipes’”

  1. Rene Sullivan says:

    Would love to see the mobile scratch come to Red Rock Balloonfest next weekend between Knoxville and Pella. 4th annual event with around 30 balloons flying over the beach.

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