After a decade nestled in a cozy corner of the Dolphin Village Shopping Center, St. Pete Beach’s Café Soleil is relocating just a half-mile north on Gulf Boulevard. If all goes well, the popular French bakery and coffee shop will launch its next era early in January.
It’s been quite the learning curve for the café’s owner Lauren Chezaud, who contends her landlord, New York-based Brixmor Property Group, forced her out of Dolphin Village so she wouldn’t compete with a Starbucks in the plaza.
Starbucks moved in many months ago. “We had been co-existing peacefully for the last year,” Chezaud said.
The nightmare began when she approached Brixmor about renewing the lease for Café Soleil, which had been initially signed in 2013. “They very nicely told me that they had a great location on the other side of the shopping center,” Chezaud said. “It was bigger, and they were going to give me a deal on. So I thought ‘why not?’”
She said she spent nine months getting through city red tape and negotiating with contractors in anticipation of the relocation. “They sent me a lease for the new place; I signed it and I never heard back from them. I was in a rush. I needed to know what was going on.
In a letter, she said, “They pretty much let me know that I no longer had a deal, because by relocating to the other side of the shopping center, I was becoming a new tenant.”
The terms of the new lease, according to Chezaud, dictated that she couldn’t sell anything that competed with Starbucks. “We’re a coffee shop. There’s no way we could survive without serving coffee. And they told us we could no longer serve specialty drinks, why is why people come to our place.”
She is in possession of a text from her leasing agent, alleging a conflict: “The way your menu reads right now, Starbucks will not approve your use.”
Brixmor, which manages 365 shopping centers nationwide, including Seminole Plaza, Tyrone Gardens and Rutland Plaza in Pinellas County, issued a statement in September challenging Chezaud’s claims.
“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,” it read. “The potential conflict was ultimately resolved, but Café Soleil informed us she no longer wished to remain in our center and is relocating to another location.
“As previously communicated, Café Soleil was not asked to change its menu or stop serving coffee and pastries.”
Through a statement, Starbucks also told WTSP-10 Tampa Bay the corporate giant “had no knowledge of the café’s status with Dolphin Village ownership” and was committed to being a “good neighbor” in the St. Pete Beach shopping center.
Chezaud smelled a rat. “Everyone denied,” she said. “They all blamed each other.”
Unfortunately, she added, “I couldn’t sue them. They didn’t break my lease. They just decided not to renew it. I have a lot of people working for me. I can’t afford to go into a legal battle for all kinds of reasons. So it was just maybe easier to move to a place that was happy to have us.”
It’s 5501 Gulf Boulevard, next door to the home of the Taverna on the Bay restaurant – the former home of Caddy’s, and before that, Silas’ Steakhouse.
(For those with long memories, the plaza was the location of the popular Silas Dent restaurant in the 1980s and ‘90s – and in the ‘60s, the location of Tussaud’s London Wax Museum, one the first tourist attractions on St. Pete Beach.)
“We’re right across the street from major hotels, so that’s going to bring in business,” Chezaud enthused. “We’re not too worried about our customers; we were worried about finding a place on the beach, but this is just around the corner.”
A native of Paris, Chezaud decided to open her pastry shop in St. Pete Beach after she read about the place on TripAdvisor.
In 2012, when she moved to the area, “It was a quaint community that was quiet when it wasn’t Spring Break. It was seasonal. The beach would get really busy during Spring Break, Thanksgiving, Christmastime, but we had a time of the year when it was slow. There was no traffic. You had the beach to yourself. There was no loud music on the beach.”
Like all small business owners, she noticed how things began to swell. “We were voted No. 1 beach in the country by TripAdvisor, several times over the past decade,” Chezaud said. “It’s wonderful for businesses, but the downside is that it increases traffic. And it gives motivation to big chains – they want to be on the No. 1 beach in America – so they see financial interest in moving here.”
She is a member of the advocacy group Protect St. Pete Beach.
“We’re not against change. But when it comes to the point where it threatens all the small businesses, or discourages them to open up here, or forces them to leave, then I think people have an issue with that.”
Brixmor Property Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.