Chico and the mans

Pictured with employee Carlos Aybar (left) and store manager John Mangan (right), Chico’s Natural Pet Market owner Danielle Areco holds a cat named Smoky that is up for adoption at the Fancy Cats Rescue Team’s in-store center.

Chico’s Natural Pet Market looked like a goner.

The independent pet store’s five-year lease with Barcroft Plaza property owner Federal Realty was scheduled to terminate on May 31, and employees were fully prepared to vacate the Falls Church space that they had turned into a beloved draw for local pet owners.

It took a combination of community pressure and compromise for Chico’s to win a reprieve, which came close enough to the deadline that Fancy Cats Rescue Team had already moved out the cats it houses at the store’s adoption center.

Chico’s founder and owner Danielle Areco announced on May 23 in a newsletter to supporters that the pet store will remain at Barcroft Plaza after she negotiated a new year-long lease with Federal Realty that hinges on a new business plan expected to make the store more sustainable.

“Everything worked out when everybody took a step back and came together, including our community,” Areco said. “But without my community, I would not be able to…close the deal. Does that make sense? We have to make the noise to be heard, but we also needed to have the conversation.”

Areco originally opened Chico’s in Barcroft Plaza as a Pet Depot franchise in 2015, but she converted the space into an independently owned store in July 2017.

The former dancer’s vivacious personality, a commitment to offering specialty products, and community-oriented events like live music performances, ice cream socials, and dog fashion shows helped Chico’s cultivate a loyal following, but a prospective rent increase and the loss of an investor put the store at risk of closure.

In a bid to solicit advice and build community support, Areco invited patrons to join her on Apr. 25 for a community meeting at Chico’s. Among the meeting’s attendees was Del. Kaye Kory (D-38th), who got involved at the request of constituents and praised small businesses as vital to giving local communities an identity.

Supporters wrote letters and made calls to Federal Realty to express their appreciation of Chico’s, but Areco says it was not until she adopted a more conciliatory approach that she started to make progress.

Federal Realty does not discuss details related to merchant leases as corporate policy, marketing director Sarah North told the Fairfax County Times in April.

Areco met with Federal Realty’s leasing agent to explain her business’s history as well as her plans to make changes that would reduce expenses and make the store more sustainable going forward.

When Areco emerged from that meeting, she had a new lease, and Chico’s had a second chance.

Among the changes that Chico’s will undergo in the near-future is a decrease in space, since Areco attributes the store’s financial challenges in part to its large inventory.

Architectural designs for the smaller space have already come in, Areco says.

The space no longer devoted to Chico’s will be set aside for another merchant to rent. Areco would love for a veterinary clinic or another pet-oriented business to move in next door.

“I'm looking for not a partner, because they are going to have their own lease, I just think that would be beneficial for both of us and to Barcroft,” Areco said.

Chico’s will continue to offer the same products, but some of the more expensive or specialized goods will be offered exclusively through an online store expected to launch soon with Endless Aisles, a software platform that lets retailers with physical locations sell products and process orders electronically as well.

Online purchases will be delivered directly to customers’ homes instead of coming through the brick-and-mortar Chico’s.

Chico’s will still provide in-person cat adoptions through its partnership with Fancy Cats Rescue Team, a local nonprofit that aims to find suitable lifetime homes for animals that might otherwise face euthanasia at a shelter.

Fancy Cats volunteer adoption coordinator Peggy Morrison says she was thrilled to learn that the nonprofit would still be able to operate out of Chico’s.

“We’re incredibly grateful that she’s staying,” Morrison, who was at the store on July 13 for its weekly adoption event, said. “Not a lot of business owners would give this amount of space for free to an adoption agency…It’s very generous.”

Falls Church resident Nina Richards first discovered Chico’s in December when she stopped by to pick up a cat she was fostering through Fancy Cats.

Richards ultimately adopted that cat, a black feline named Myra, and she took in a second foster cat from Chico’s that later found a permanent home through the cat lounge Patriot Pawsabilities in Fairfax.

Though she lives closer to the Tysons Corner area, Richards now regularly shops at Chico’s to buy food for her family’s fish and cats, and she was distraught when she heard that the venue might close.

“I’m always a big fan of small businesses, so I thought it was really important to kind of step up and be as supportive as I could be,” Richards said. “I'm really glad that it’s not going anywhere.”

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