Lynn St. Laurent didn't know the numbers 24 and 7 would create such magic.
But when she opened Amelie's to customers 'round the clock, her French-style bakery and café began to develop a following.
Fans of the food speak rapturously of the salted-caramel brownies and twice-baked chocolate croissants. Fans of the eclectic décor "ooh" and "ahh" over the chandeliers pieced together from silver spatulas and mismatched vases.
That combination of luxurious baked goods, an eclectic crowd and what a local sociologist explains as the constant possibility to connect socially - or not - has made Amelie's a destination for Charlotte's in-the-know.
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No matter what time of night you need confirmation that you're not the only person in the world still far from sleep, you can go to Amelie's.
Those are the fans that matter perhaps most, the ones who keep St. Laurent and partners Bill Lamb and Brenda Ische going around the clock.
The place buzzes at breakfast and lunch with freelance workers, students and customers drawn by the stray fundraising sale (jewelry and art are favorites). About 10 organizations, from a knitting circle to a variety of technology groups, hold regular meetings each week - with no need to get permission from the owners.
After dinner, especially on weekends, the line can wend around the corner for coffee and sweets.
You can always go to Amelie's.
Can we come in?
St. Laurent says she and Lamb sort of stumbled upon the decision to open the bakery one morning and then never close again.
They started Amelie's in May 2008, and months later were still ironing out operations. One of the perplexing things, St. Laurent says, was when to open and close.
They kept more typical bakery hours, opening in the early morning and closing in the early evening. But she and Lamb, the partners most involved in the day-to-day operations, would be cleaning up or trying out recipes after hours, and customers would come knocking at the door.
Lamb would hold a business meeting in off-hours, and customers would spy him through the window and knock.
"We just weren't sure what hours we wanted to be open," St. Laurent says.
That is, until her niece visited in December 2008 and compared Amelie's to a place she frequented in New York City - around the clock.
The owners opened Amelie's on Jan. 9, 2009, and the doors haven't closed.
The retail café business went crazy. Month-over-month growth has hit 700 percent - seemingly fantastic, St. Laurent says, but true. Amelie's started with five employees; now, the staff is about 40 full- and part-time workers.
That growth, and the customer loyalty it represents, has ceased to astound St. Laurent.
"I just had to stop shaking my head in confusion," she says. "I guess I've just had to start accepting it.
"We're just their favorite thing."
'Creative place in general'
Amelie's is in an unassuming strip mall about three miles north of uptown, where the surroundings still are a little more industrial than gentrified.
The sign is small, and good luck if you can find online directions specific enough. You wouldn't be the only person to pass it on the first visit.
But when you walk in, if everyone doesn't know your name, they're at least willing to learn it. Every stranger at the counter wants to talk to you about your choice when you call out your order: "Ooh, that's a good one," they purr. Or, "That's my favorite, too."
Josh McGlinn loves the soup. Or the soup and sandwich combo. He has nothing against pastries, but he has made Amelie's his office away from home and, if he ate a pastry for every hour he spent there, he'd be in trouble.
As a freelance Web designer, McGlinn, 33, and his partner Nathan Longbrook coordinate weekly gatherings of other freelancers in the atrium behind Amelie's.
They sit, they flip open their laptops, and they take full advantage of the café's free Wi-Fi network. It's called "co-working" - freelancers, telecommuters and others without a true office coming together to create an office environment or watercooler experience. (McGlinn and Longbrook run a group called CLTJelly, whose motto is "Casual Co-working in the Carolinas.")
So at least once a week, sometimes three people, and sometimes as many as 50, show up to work together. Which can be a strange thing to happen upon - dozens of people sitting together, faces aglow in the laptop light, and all of them silent.
"We talk shop, we talk about upcoming trends," McGlinn says. "We talk about Twitter, we talk about odd-and-ends things. But it sometimes is a very quiet session. Everyone brings a laptop and has work to do."
He says the folks at Amelie's have always supported the meetings - and CLTJelly does encourage attendees to buy lunch or at least a coffee to show their appreciation. "They've always been friendly. We just have to return the chairs when we're done."
He likes how the place feels. Can he put that magic into words? He mentions the 24/7 thing, the food, the Wi-Fi. He says he can stop there at night, at 2 a.m., after a concert, for some food.
And he notes the funky décor, which is partner Ische's contribution to the business. "It has a good vibe in general," McGlinn says. "It just feels like a creative place."
What's a divorce cake?
To keep up with customers such as CLTJelly, the Charlotte Social Media Club and the other equally plugged-in people who meet at the bakery, the owners have had to embrace technology, especially social media.
Wi-Fi was just the start. Sandy Hattendorf, the bakery's social media maven, says fans of the twice-baked croissants more or less demanded to be apprised of the pastry's availability throughout the day.
Since twice-baked croissants are made of day-old croissants, Amelie's has a limited number each day. The dedicated fans wanted one every day - and were willing to adjust their work schedules to get them. So Hattendorf started tweeting about it.
The bakery's Facebook page topped 4,000 fans in February; by comparison, The Charlotte Observer has about 2,500.
Hattendorf responds to many of the posts. When she finds a complaint, she tries to work it out for everyone to see.
But mostly, people treat the Amelie's page as a social planning service and sounding board - as they would any other friend's page. Recent posts: "Quick question... what would a Divorce Cake have on top?" "I am hungry & bored and I'm pretty sure some yummy dessert is totally worth a 40-minute drive roundtrip! See you soon!" "I am coming with my crew at 12 tonight!!!!!"
You get a sense, from reading the posts, that Amelie's has become Amelie, someone to share with and to seek out and to encourage. Amelie helps you connect, helps you meet new friends.
For St. Laurent, that's proof that her business has grown into a supportive and integral part of the community - her goal from the start.
"There is this thing or person that is Amelie's," St. Laurent says. "We try to take care of the people who are taking good care of us."
You feel you belong
The connections with customers certainly aren't all electronic.
When you walk in the door, you can thumb through the Amelie's guest book - "We've gone through a gazillion of them," Hattendorf says - and find gems such as, "Do not erase Etch-a-Sketch, s'il vous plait. Love, Kristine."
Again, you walk in, you read the comments, you feel like you belong, like you're part of the magic.
That feeling has intrigued UNC Charlotte sociologist Philip Rutledge, too.
Part of the appeal, he's sure, is that it's in the right place: NoDa is trendy, and many of the newer residents have the money to afford well-made pastries and baguettes daily.
"In Charlotte, there seems to be a subculture of folks who discover a section," he says. "Once it's discovered by a cool crowd, people go."
Other places, the crowd wanders away after a few months. He notes that hasn't happened at Amelie's.
He also marvels at the diversity. "There's always young and older, women's groups, classes, the laptop crowd."
He calls the silent groups with the laptops "remote intimacy." They're connecting via technology - but, by occupying a table at Amelie's, they're open to connecting in person.
"We're always one touch from a social connection," Rutledge says. "Because of technology, we're getting more and more intimate."
That's not his style. He prefers face-to-face connections.
"I myself find privacy a value," he says. "I like to go places where I can be isolated from all this technology."
Amelie's, it turns out, is a place for him, too.
St. Laurent says she has had offers to open more Amelie's.
Would the magic transfer?
"I'm not sure Amelie's could exist in another community," she says. "There's just a social awareness, a social compassion" in NoDa. "The people care about our community, and so does Amelie's."