When Maurice Breton noticed a woman leaving empty-handed from his new Comfort One Shoes flagship store in historic Old Town Alexandria, Va., he was curious why. After all, the three-story, 10,000-square-foot location at 200 King St., which opened in March, offers more than 75 brands and hundreds of styles from some of the world’s top-selling comfort labels, including Earth, Romika, Jambu and OluKai.
The store, just minutes outside Washington, D.C., marks a homecoming for the retail veteran. Breton opened his first location, which sits directly across King Street, 25 years ago.
While the new store is the 22nd in the Comfort One chain, it’s the first housed in property owned by the retailer. Breton acquired the circa-1880 building in 2016 for $3.3 million and has since poured another $1 million into renovations to modernize the space.
“We decided that for a family business to own its own real estate is far superior than to be at the mercy of landlords,” said Breton, who runs Comfort One Shoes with his son Garrett, VP of merchandising, and wife Deborah, who handles public relations. “It will be in the family for generations.” And the family plans to capitalize on this strategy with more retail acquisitions.
Updating the building, formerly a toy store, was no easy task due to its historic status. All renovations made to the building required approval by the Old and Historic Alexandria Board of Architectural Review.
To make sure all work was up to code, the Bretons tapped local firms Kulinski Group Architects and Calloway Contracting Group. “They knew how to get things done in the city,” Breton said of the process, which took nearly two years to complete.
According to Stephen Kulinski, owner of the eponymous architecture firm, “the building needed some love to bring it back.” He was referring to haphazard repairs made to the exterior brick over the years. “We were able to bring in specialists who took out bad repairs and brought it back to life. We updated all the [interior] systems but kept the shell to the historic standards.”
Because the building remained a commercial property, costly renovations such as installing handicap-accessible bathrooms and an elevator could have been avoided. However, said Breton, “we wanted to be proud of the building, and got it up to code in every way. Our investments and improvements make the building more valuable.”
While the Bretons relied on professionals to take the space down to its studs, father and son designed its modern industrial look. Their plan incorporated reclaimed wood, old church pews and shingles they discovered at Second Chance, a nonprofit in Baltimore that operates a secondhand shop. In addition, Comfort One’s in-house handyman and carpenters constructed the glass shelving held up by metal pipes. “We didn’t spare any expense,” said Breton.
So far, the investment has paid off, according to the company. Since the store’s opening, it has been the chain’s No. 1 volume location, due in part to its serendipitous position at a stop along King Street’s free trolley route. The train is generating significant foot traffic, made up of locals as well as regional and international tourists. “It was a big surprise,” said Breton. “We didn’t realize how many people got off at the stop.”
Vendors such as Arcopedico are also looking forward to tapping this customer base. “The location in a tourist area could be a great opportunity for us,” said Dan Simas, president of Simco Imported Shoes, which distributes the line. “Our shoes are great in [a city] where people do a lot of walking and comfort is a factor.”
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