Featured photo: Shanata McMillian Shepard started NataBelles Desserts in 2018 after the death of her grandmother, Catherine McMillian. (photo by Kaitlynn Havens)
A kiosk sits in the back of Marketplace Mall next to a collection of regional tobacciana and the vintage coin collections of Lost In Time Antiques. On the other side, the As Seen On TV section of Hamrick’s greets bargain shoppers. A crowd of people has gathered. The air is filled with something sticky and sweet, hints of cinnamon and the rich, earthy aroma of baked sweet potatoes, while Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” plays over the mall speakers.
As the crowd waits, Shanata McMillian Shepard swiftly drizzles a final layer of icing to the baked goods that she’ll serve to customers who wait in the line that wraps all the way to the entrance of the mall. She is the one they’ve all come to see.
Shanata McMillian Shepard started NataBelles Desserts in 2018 after the death of her grandmother, Catherine McMillian.
“We made the best poundcakes. She’d say ‘Oh Nata, we should open up a restaurant with these desserts,’” Shepard says. “I used that in her honor.”
At the beginning, Shepard baked from a basement kitchen, using recipes from her grandmother’s wooden recipe box. She now fits three stand mixers and two commercial ovens in a large center kiosk at Marketplace Mall, using many of those same inherited recipes.
One of those, a recipe for her grandmother’s sweet-potato pound cake, led to a serendipitous accident.
“I was making one of her sweet-potato pound cakes, and the cake fell,” Shepard says. “But when I cut it, it was still so good. The texture was like a fudge brownie. I thought, This could really be something.”
Shepard began research on finding a recipe for sweet-potato brownies that didn’t contain chocolate, but came up short. After six months of reworking her grandmother’s pound cake, she had a new rendition of her own.
The final product, a brownie-like square, filled with a mix of weekly roasted and smashed sweet potatoes, is both rich and fudgy, the outside nearing crispness dampened only by the bath of cream-cheese icing and pecans that covers the treat.
“I put in for the trademark for the sweet-potato brownies,” Shepard explains. “I had to sign all this proof that it wasn’t out there. I had to go through the patent process in [Washington] DC We’re excited; this will be the home of the original.”
The trademark, she anticipates, will be complete by May.
Along with her “world-famous brownies,” NataBelles serves up a variety of other sweets. One in particular, a sweet-potato cinnamon roll, is quickly becoming a crowd favorite.
“We named it Sin-O-Man bun because it wasn’t a typical cinnamon roll,” Shepherd laughs. “It’s a sweet-potato cinnamon roll. I remember someone telling me, ‘Shanata, it’s a sin to be this good.’”
Each of the Sin-o-Man buns are hand rolled, cut and baked by her husband, Robert Shepard.
NataBelles Desserts in its entirety is a family operation. The empty kiosk location was discovered after Shepard picked up her youngest son, RJ, from the childcare center inside the mall. On the days RJ isn’t part of their childcare program, and the business is closed, he helps break down boxes and occasionally takes the trash out. Her oldest, Chancelor, helps out on the creative side with new recipes, as well as makes pound cakes, icing, and brownies on Saturdays when, Shepard says with a generous smile, “we need all hands on deck.”
“The culture we live in is so pick-up and go, and we want to be part of that,” she says. “But we still want that artisan feel. Everything is made completely from scratch, and based in love.”
And because they’re operating out of such a small space, the baked goods are first come, first serve, creating viral demand for these local treats.
“We have lines because you can only put so much in one oven,” Shepard says. “Everything is freshly baked. We may not be sold out for the day, but we are sold out till restock. But people wait. We are selling out before they even come out of the oven.”
NataBelles Desserts is closed on the day of the interview. Nonetheless, a couple walks up to the kiosk.
“Is this where we can get the sweet-potato brownies?,” the woman asks.
Shepard tells her the days and hours NataBelles will be open for the rest of the week.
“We’ll see you then,” the woman says without hesitation.
NataBelles Desserts is located at Marketplace Mall, 2101 Peters Creek Parkway Winston-Salem and is on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12-6, on Saturdays from 12-6, or pick up her weekly drop off at Piedmont Aviation Snack Bar.
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