Can Amelie’s grow and keep its cool?

Customer Ron Touchstone looks over the bakery products with employee Dominique Stance at the original Amelie's location in NoDa.
Customer Ron Touchstone looks over the bakery products with employee Dominique Stance at the original Amelie's location in NoDa.

As NoDa-born Amelie’s French Bakery prepares to embark on a major expansion, can the company keep the funky, artsy vibe that first lured hordes of Charlotteans?

That’s the biggest question facing the eclectic shop, known for its kitschy decor and salted caramel brownies, which brought on the man behind Salsarita’s growth to help it expand last year.

Although some customers said they’re skeptical and experts said the company will have to tread carefully, the three partners who own Amelie’s say they’re confident they can grow the bakery without losing its soul. They recently signed a lease for an 11,000-square-foot uptown location at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and College Street, and opened a Carmel Commons shopping center location Saturday in south Charlotte. Amelie’s shops already are operating in Atlanta and Rock Hill.

Managing Partner Bruce Willette founded Charlotte-based Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina and grew it to more than 80 locations in 19 states and Puerto Rico before selling the fast-casual chain in 2011. He has similar ambitions for Amelie’s, which he said could become a national brand. He already has standardized more operations and installed expensive, new equipment, such as a Turbochef oven to cook sandwiches.

“The brand deserves growth,” Willette said. “It works for the customers and it works for us to grow the company.”

At the same time, he said he’ll be wary of over-expanding and diluting the brand.

“We’re definitely going to protect the uniqueness of Amelie’s. They’re not going to be on every corner,” Willette said.

Partner Brenda Ische creates most of Amelie’s funky decor from secondhand items, and she said she’s getting a warehouse to ramp up production. Ische said it will be a challenge to make new locations feel unique like the first store, which features a pots-and-pans chandelier, a piano, a faux fireplace and maps of Paris – decor Ische described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Marie Antoinette.”

She said her goal won’t be to create a perfect replica of Amelie’s in every location.

“It’s not easy to recreate a unique space over and over again. It’s sort of an oxymoron,” Ische said.

“I want all of the bakeries to look similar but not identical,” Ische said. “I want the customer to walk in and say ‘This is Amelie’s, but there are different things to look at here.’”

“That’s the key, and that’s the trick,” partner Bill Lamb said.

But some patrons of the original shop, which opened in 2008 on North Davidson Street, aren’t so sure.

“If growth is non-organic and forced, it starts to have the cookie-cutter feel,” said Brady Fulmer, a software developer in Charlotte. He compared it to the growth of the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain.

“To me, they used to be very grungy and hipster-ish. … The ones here and in Atlanta are very cartoon-ized,” said Fulmer.

Willette said he’s not planning to franchise Amelie’s now, because the complexity of baking fine French pastries lends itself more to a corporate-owned stores model. After the new Amelie’s uptown opens, hopefully in mid-September, Willette said the company will evaluate how best to grow and whether to seek outside investment.

Capturing the ‘magic’

Experts say the challenge will be standardizing and dispersing Amelie’s unique personality to a slew of stores in different neighborhoods, cities and states.

“Much of the magic of the first locations lies in the strength of the owners, their personalities and the uniqueness of a particular site,” said Neil Stern, a retail expert with Chicago-based consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. “It looks wonderful and my Charlotte friends say great things, but this will still be a challenge. Much of what they have done instinctively will need to be systematized and with this, some of the personality could suffer.”

Wake Forest marketing professor Roger Beahm said as long as Amelie’s can develop a successful and consistent brand, it should be able to expand. He compared it to a brand such as Trader Joe’s that has emotional appeal as well as products people can’t find elsewhere.

“If (Amelie’s) does this, it can succeed in moving to any number of other geographic areas,” Beahm said. “It’s going to be critical for a brand like Amelie’s to deliver a consistent product and experience from one location to the next.”

Stern said there is likely to be plenty of fertile soil for the bakery to expand.

“While every neighborhood is unique, there are lots of funky neighborhoods throughout the country,” Stern said. Still, he said if Amelie’s expands too fast and to more ordinary locations, it could lose its allure.

“There is the appeal of not being Starbucks,” he said. “It is a bit of the contradiction of being cool and local vs. corporate and staid.”

One earlier venture to expand Amelie’s ended in a lawsuit. Soon after a couple from Charlotte opened an Amelie’s location in Tampa, Fla., in 2011 in partnership with the Amelie’s owners, the Florida owners changed the shop’s name to Sophie’s. Amelie’s owners sued, claiming the new store was infringing on its trademarks and using its recipes.

Sophie’s closed, and court records show the case was settled in 2012 for undisclosed terms.

Leah Leventhal brought a friend from Arkansas to Amelie’s in NoDa last week. She had mixed feelings about the possibility of the company expanding to dozens of locations.

“It’s kind of like our hometown owned it,” she said. “It’s two-fold: It’s exciting for it to grow, but then it’s not like this one, unique place. We’re in NoDa, so of course it’s funky, spunky. It could adapt to whatever culture.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Chaney: 704-358-5197

Twitter: @ESPortillo