For many of its patrons, Chico’s Natural Pet Market is not just another pet store. It is integral to their daily routines and the lives of the animals that they see as part of their families.

One patron frequents the independent Falls Church business to get pet food and bring her cat in for grooming, because she prefers its customer service to what she has encountered in larger chain stores.

Another customer lives closer to Giant but does most of his grocery shopping at Harris Teeter’s instead, since it is located in Barcroft Plaza just like Chico’s.

“We can walk here and bring our dog in,” Falls Church resident Wallis Lahtinen-Hicks said. “…If we have a problem, we can ask them and we’ll get an answer...”

Patrons shared their stories of appreciation for Chico’s during a community meeting organized on Apr. 25 by founder and owner Danielle Areco, who sought to gauge support for the store in the face of financial challenges that could bring it to a close.

Areco is the first person to admit that she bears some responsibility for the independent store’s current struggles.

A former professional dancer and TV entertainer from Brazil, Areco originally got into the pet store industry when she opened a Pet Depot franchise in 2015, but after realizing that the chain’s model did not fit what customers were looking for, she decided to convert the space into her own small, independent business.

Chico’s opened at Barcroft Plaza in July 2017.

In addition to selling food, toys, and other pet-related products, Chico’s offers grooming and spa services as well as community events, ranging from dog fashion shows and ice cream socials to live music and samba dancing.

The store also houses an adoption center for the local nonprofit Fancy Cats Rescue Team, which hosts adoption fairs at the store every Saturday afternoon.

Over 400 cats have been adopted from Chico’s, according to Areco, who named the store after a cat she rescued from alleys in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“When people come here, they already feel better, and the energy is better,” Areco said. “The money was really just to be able to continue helping. So that’s why I said it’s a good combination to have a store and be able to help those animals to find a nice home.”

However, all of Areco’s work and that of Chico’s nine other employees could come to an end if she is unable to negotiate a new lease with property owner Federal Realty and find new business partners after losing her initial investor, who needs to be paid back $200,000.

Areco says she already pays about $16,000 per month in rent under her current five-year lease, which ends on May 31st, but a Federal Realty leasing agent told her that the company will want an even higher rate going forward, though no numbers have been put in writing yet.

Federal Realty, which owns Barcroft Plaza, declined to comment on Chico’s situation.

“It is Federal Realty’s corporate policy not to discuss any details regarding merchant leases,” Federal Realty marketing director Sarah North said.

While she allows that starting her own business was always a risk, especially for someone with no previous entrepreneurial experience, Areco believes that Chico’s can be successful long-term if given more time to find its footing and grow.

“It’s not that I’m crying…that, oh, my business failed,” Areco said. “No, my business did not fail. We just need more time…We are progressing all the time. We are adjusting.”

Areco hopes that, with the community’s support, she can convince Federal Realty to come to the table and agree to a new lease that is more feasible.

Based on last week’s meeting, the community appears to be more than willing to help.

Phil Neri has been a regular customer of Areco’s since she opened her Pet Depot franchise five years ago, even though there is a Petco about the same distance away from his house.

In addition to liking the personal atmosphere of a small, independent business, Neri has to buy a specific kind of food for his sister’s cat that is only available at Chico’s and a different store located on the other side of the Capital Beltway.

“I’m going to be very upset if we lose this store,” Neri said. “I don't want to shop at other stores.”

Chico’s has even earned the support of a state legislator.

Though she is not a usual customer, Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th) says she heard from constituents who were concerned about the store’s future and asked if she could get involved.

Kory helped craft an agreement with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in January 2016 to prevent a planned relocation of a DMV customer service center in Arlington to Barcroft Plaza. Mason District residents had opposed the move due to traffic and parking concerns, according to The Annandale Blog.

“I think small businesses give identity to an area,” Kory said. “…That's what we need in Fairfax County. We don't have a lot of communities that are identifiable, but if we can keep one here that will help economically and socially, I want to be a part of it.”

Even without a new lease, Chico’s may continue to have life.

Areco plans to offer all of the store’s products online and let customers purchase whatever they need with no cost for delivery.

An alternative location in Annandale’s Pinecrest Plaza is also under consideration, though Areco says she hopes to stay in Barcroft if possible.

After working with Areco for five years, Chico’s employee John Mangan says he is proud to have been part of an independently owned, genuinely local business. Like the store’s other workers, he has lived in the area for most of his life, and Areco still resides just down the street.

“It’s something I’ve been very proud of, to watch it go from nothing to something that’s very well respected and loved by the community,” Mangan said. “It’s very frustrating, kind of saddening that we’re having all these problems after coming so close to being successful.”

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