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Sophie's in Hyde Park settles with N.C. cafe, tweaks look and recipes

HYDE PARK — The changes in decor are subtle but with an obvious theme:

Look more local.

Gone are walls of small, crowded portraits and framed Victorian paintings at Sophie's French Bakery and Café. They've been replaced by large paintings from a local artist.

The random busts, odd chandeliers and a model of the Arc de Triomphe have also disappeared from the Hyde Park Village coffee shop.

Anything that could be traced back to another French bakery and cafe nearly 600 miles away is being replaced, including the two-tone blue walls that are being touched up with green.

The changes were spurred by a 77-page lawsuit spanning two states over trade secrets of things like salted caramel brownie ingredients and whether one cafe's Parisian shabby chic decor was too similar to another's.

This month, Sophie's French Bakery and Café in Hyde Park Village and Amélie's: A French Bakery and Café in Charlotte, N.C., settled a legal dispute featured July 8 in City Times. But, like each cafe's cookbook, the specifics of that agreement will remain secret, both parties said.

"I don't want to say a whole lot," Amélie's co-owner Lynn St. Laurent said. "We got our trade recipes and our trade secrets intact."

What say you, Sophie's?

"I can't go into that," Todd Binkowski, owner of the Tampa cafe, said.

It had all started as a partnership. When Binkowski and his wife, Carole, lived in Charlotte, they were friends with one of the owners of Amélie's, a beloved local institution with award-winning desserts. After the Binkowskis moved near family in Tampa in 2009, they noticed all the empty storefronts in Hyde Park Village and thought an Amélie's could drum up traffic.

They worked with the Charlotte owners to re-create Amélie's using the same recipes, decor and business plan. In February, the French cafe and bakery opened under the name "Amélie's" in the Hyde Park shopping center.

But in less than a month, issues over control caused Todd Binkowski to end the partnership. The Charlotte owners told Binkowski to stop using anything related to their brand.

Binkowski, who offered to pay the Charlotte owners for their startup help, renamed his cafe Sophie's and said he changed the menu and recipes. But the Amélie's ownership group sued, doubting those changes and saying that Sophie's decor needed to be replaced, too.

On the same day a court hearing was scheduled a few weeks ago, both sides worked out their disagreements without a judge.

St. Laurent said Sophie's will make some agreed-upon recipe changes. The Charlotte cafe will also get "some things" back, though she wouldn't say what they were. The paint changes were also part of the agreement, she said.

Binkowski declined to specify Sophie's decoration changes.

"If you stop and stick your head in," he said, "maybe you might be able to tell."

Walls were painted and new curtains hung this week. Binkowski said the menu continues to expand to fit Hyde Park families. The bakery next plans to roll out some artisan breads — something Amélie's in Charlotte doesn't do, he said.

Sophie's also plans to replace a giant map of Paris painted on a wall with one of Hyde Park. Last week, Carole Binkowski unrolled a blueprint of the design, which features the neighborhood blocks surrounding Sophie's.

Charlotte was nowhere to be seen, existing miles away in the Binkowskis' memories.

"We are completely independent," Todd Binkowski said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Sophie's in Hyde Park settles with N.C. cafe, tweaks look and recipes 07/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 21, 2011 4:30am]
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