When Lauren Chezaud decided to leave Paris over a decade ago, she looked up what was America’s best beach on TripAdvisor.
In 2012, St. Pete Beach won the title. So, that’s where she moved to.
To have a taste of home, she opened Café Soleil, an award-winning French cafe offering freshly baked bread, pastries and coffee that’s become one of Yelp’s Top 100 Florida restaurants for five years in a row and one of the nation’s best spots for croissants, out of the Dolphin Village shopping complex. In April, Café Soleil celebrated 10 years in business.
Chezaud said she planned to reopen in a bigger place when her landlord suggested she relocate to a remodeled part of the same shopping complex. But that never ended up happening. Because of a leasing dispute, Café Soleil is leaving Dolphin Village by the end of the month.
The owner alleges that the Dolphin Village landlord asked her to change Café Soleil’s menu to not compete against Starbucks, located on the other side of the building she’s currently in.
Chezaud said if she stopped selling specialty coffee, pastries and egg products — which make up most of her menu — then her landlord would let her sign the new lease.
“Of course I’m devastated because the cafe is my baby,” Chezaud said.
She never signed the lease and now she’s being forced out of her original location at 4695 Gulf Blvd., which is being leased to sandwich shop Jersey Mike’s Subs.
“Because it was a new location, it made me become a new tenant. And of course I didn’t see it coming that Starbucks could give their OK or their consent for me to open or not to open,” Chezaud said.
The landlord denied asking Chezaud to change any part of Café Soleil’s menu, Brixmor Property Group south region president Matt Ryan said in an emailed statement. Ryan said there was an issue with “another tenant’s lease” in the complex that was resolved and it was Café Soleil that chose to leave the shopping center after finding another location.
“I thought I had a deal pretty much,” Chezaud said. “So had I known, I would have used my energy to find another location.”
When asked what the conflict was and how it was resolved, representatives for Brixmor did not respond to further questions from the Tampa Bay Times.
Starbucks spokesperson Jay Go-Guasch said in a statement that “at no point did Starbucks request or compel any organization or business entity of any kind, to move, change or not renew Café Soleil’s business or tenancy.”
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“We have enjoyed being neighbors with you and value our relationships within Dolphin Village. Starbucks remains committed to being a good neighbor in the St. Pete Beach community,” he said.
Brixmor, the New York-based property manager with 365 shopping centers across the nation, has owned Dolphin Village since 2011, according to property records.
Chezaud had hired contractors, architects and electricians to help her prepare the new space. She said her landlord switched her to a month-to-month lease at her original location as she planned to move.
But in May, she got a text from a Brixmor leasing agent that shocked her: “The way your menu reads right now, Starbucks will not approve your use.”
Meanwhile, Brixmor regional president Ryan said that “while our leasing representative’s text could have been worded differently, she was indicating that there was a potential conflict within another tenant’s lease. The potential conflict was ultimately resolved.”
It’s very common for shopping center landlords to have language in leases with chain businesses like Starbucks that stymie competition, said Larry Silvestri, a St. Petersburg-based commercial real estate attorney specializing in retail and shopping centers.
“The national tenants probably all have some sort of exclusive to protect their turf,” Silvestri said.
Some landlords can negotiate carve-outs in their lease with Starbucks, such as letting existing tenants stay or limiting other businesses that sell coffee from selling branded drinks or packaged beans, Silvestri said. Not adhering to an exclusive within a lease could put landlords at risk of being sued.
Brixmor said when it negotiates new leases it has to make sure it doesn’t conflict with other leases it has already signed.
“In this case, Café Soleil was in discussions with us on a new lease for a larger space, so the landlord must consider all of the other leases currently in place at the shopping center,” Ryan said.
Landlords typically don’t like exclusive clauses, which can limit them from filling a shopping center with more tenants. But for a chain with a draw like Starbucks, Silvestri said many are willing to agree to them — putting mom-and-pop businesses at a disadvantage.
Starbucks spokesperson Go-Guasch told the Times over the phone that Starbucks had “no problem” with Café Soleil staying in Dolphin Village.
“Café Soleil was exempt. They were there before us,” Go-Guasch said. “So any clauses that we might have had, they were completely exempt from.”
Since announcing that Café Soleil is leaving, Chezaud said a flood of community members have reached out to support her. Protect St. Pete Beach, an advocacy group against overcommercialization of the beach town, posted a blog asking people to speak out against the landlord and Starbucks.
For Chezaud, she said she knows the law doesn’t favor her situation, but she wanted to speak out so other small businesses know they’re not alone.
“We want to protect our beach and get the opportunities for small businesses and chains to coexist, because I think it’s possible,” Chezaud said. “It’s terrible when a small business, especially one that’s successful, is threatened this way.”