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Legal tempest brews at Sophie's French Bakery & Café in Hyde Park Village

HYDE PARK

Entering this cafe and French bakery is like walking into a cloud with its two-tone blue walls, Victorian paintings, throw rugs and purposefully mismatched tables and chairs to sweep away any notions of pretentiousness. With whimsical touches like a framed Etch A Sketch and teakettles hanging from a chandelier, Sophie's is part Alice in Wonderland. But you won't find any growth-hormone-infused cakes or nonsensical tea parties as in the book. Just a deli case of fresh pastries and desserts like pastel-colored French macaroons and a coffee bar that serves French press coffee and espresso. "Comfortable," owner Todd Binkowski said, describing the bakery — which seems completely original. Except it's not.

And that has made things somewhat uncomfortable for its owners, Todd and Carole Binkowski.

In Charlotte, N.C., a similar looking cafe and French bakery chain called Amélie's is a local institution with 14,000 Facebook fans and the city's "best dessert," according to Charlotte Magazine, for three years running.

Amélie's owners say the Tampa cafe infringes on its brand, recipes and "trade dress," or style, and filed a lawsuit last month against the Binkowskis.

The similarities aren't coincidental. Both sets of owners began as friends and business partners before a disagreement over operational control devolved into legal action.

The lawsuit included 77 pages, where the definition of "Paris shabby-chic," the secrets to salted caramel brownies and "proprietary" baking methods have become points of contention. The suit sought to stop Sophie's from using anything related to Amélie's. It also asked for compensatory damages without specifying an amount, though it claimed the matter in dispute exceeded $75,000.

Both sides hoped to talk it over during a hearing this week in U.S. District Court in Tampa. The outcome of their meeting wasn't available before press time but, regardless, the coffee shop dispute had already created a buzz in two states.

"What makes Amélie's Amélie's" a recent story in the Charlotte Observer asked.

Nothing Sophie's is doing, responded Binkowski, 45.

"We're very comfortable that we're not violating any of their recipes," Binkowski told the St. Petersburg Times just after the lawsuit was filed. "It's complicated, but we're very comfortable with what we're doing and it'll be figured out via litigation."

• • •

More than two decades ago, a man named Bill Lamb hired Binkowski, then a computer programmer, for an IBM sales job. He worked for Lamb for three years and the two forged a friendship that lasted well after Binkowski moved on to business school, and then to private equity and technology corporations.

In 2008, Lamb opened Amélie's in the North Davidson neighborhood of Charlotte. Binkowski, who lived in Charlotte, provided some free financial consulting while his wife, Carole, helped with marketing, he said.

Amélie's took off, becoming a 24-7 Charlotte fixture known for its Parisian bohemian decor and food. Charlotte's Creative Loafing described its salted caramel brownie as "crack."

In 2009, Binkowski, his wife and their kids moved to Tampa to be closer to family. Seeing so many shuttered storefronts at nearby Hyde Park Village, the Binkowskis wondered if an Amélie's might be the antidote.

"They've done well," Todd Binkowski said, "and we came down to South Tampa and saw nothing like this."

Binkowski and Lamb's ownership group forged agreements to open a Tampa Amélie's, which would give the Charlotte owners a portion of profits in return for the store's brand, recipes, style, management practices and startup support. Binkowski rented space, demolished and painted walls with his family, and hired the same person who designed the Amélie's in Charlotte.

On Feb. 26, Amélie's Café and French Bakery opened in the Hyde Park space that once housed Restaurant BT.

It wasn't long before issues over control arose, Binkowski said, prompting him to split off from the group. He declined to be more specific.

He offered to pay Amélie's or give Charlotte owners a share of proceeds for the help they had provided, he said. The Charlotte group told Binkowski the Tampa cafe needed to stop using anything related to Amélie's brand.

So Binkowski renamed the cafe Sophie's and said he took steps to distance it from Amélie's, even changing recipes. But the look stayed the same and Ameliesbakery.com, a website he had set up, redirected people to Sophie's website. That bothered Amélie's owners, and they doubted the extent of the changes Binkowski had made.

"We had done all the work to make them an Amélie's and when he decided he didn't want to be an Amélie's, we said we want everything back," Lynn St. Laurent, the Charlotte cafe's co-owner, said shortly after filing the suit. "Amélie's has become an institution in Charlotte and we were looking forward to it becoming that in Tampa. But since it's not, we needed to protect our brand."

• • •

Binkowski is disappointed in how things deteriorated. He recently said he still considered Lamb a friend, though they had stopped speaking.

As for similarities in decor, Binkowski said there are major differences between Amélie's and Sophie's. Sophie's has a kids menu, different types of creme brulee, cheesecakes, bread pudding and dishes appropriate for Florida like gazpacho and poached pear salad. It has live music every Saturday from 6 to 10 p.m. While Amélie's is popular among young professionals, Sophie's targets Hyde Park families. It has become a place for Bible study groups, book clubs and bridge games. Toys rest on a rug for kids.

"We had no interest whatsoever in being a franchise or franchise owner," Binkowski said. "We want to truly be a neighborhood bakery."

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Legal tempest brews at Sophie's French Bakery & Café in Hyde Park Village 07/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2011 5:31am]

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