RICHMOND, Va. -- Stepping into Arnett’s Family Store you can count on two things: Southern dishes that tickle taste buds and customer service as warm as the food.
Darlene Arnett rolls out the welcome mat every morning.
“Seven days a week. 365 days a year and we never close,” said Darlene.
Opening a mom-and-pop store was not on her bucket list. In 2014 a 32-year-career in industrial painting dried up after a tractor-trailer crashed into her van.
Darlene needed a second act.
“We got our hands in everything,” said Darlene.
Since opening her store in Chester, she’s found her calling. Dedicated customers can’t stay away.
“I come here every day. Sometimes two and three times a day,” said customer, Larry Gross.
Larry’s wife, Brenda, considers Darlene her soul sister.
“If I don’t want to go to the grocery store I can always find something up in here,” said Brenda. “I always say, ‘Girl you can cook!’ She makes the best breakfast sandwiches you ever tasted.”
Fresh fruits and veggies are always in stock, as are Darlene’s originals.
“I love it. I just love it,” said Darlene. “We’ve got pickles. Pickle vegetables. Jams. All of this is made right here on site.”
There is a certain buzz about her honey too. Thousands of busy bees work almost as hard as Darlene.
“I’ve got 21 beehives right now,” Darlene said. “We use honey butter in the store. We use honey in our pasta salad.”
But sweetness turned sour when COVID came knocking. Compromised customers stayed away so Darlene delivered home-cooked meals. She didn’t want her friends to go without.
“It was a heartache to see these little businesses closing,” described Darlene. “I felt like we were heading in that direction. And my customers came out and said ‘No! We are here to support you.”
“She’s got the good spirit to keep her moving and smiling. That is what makes people come back to her,” said Larry Gross.
Still, Darlene found it hard to make ends meet. In December, the business went from bad to worse.
“They’re saying get out. I opened the door and then I knew I had to get out,” said Darlene.
A fire that started in the office computer ruined everything.
“I didn’t want to leave,” said Darlene. “I didn’t want to see all my hard work go down.”
She considered walking away for good. “It was a mess."
Neighbors couldn’t bear the thought of Arnett’s closing.
“She was devastated. She really was,” said Brenda Gross.
Volunteers helped Darlene and her husband rebuild. “I couldn’t do it without them you know? They’re wonderful.”
On May 3, five months after the smoke cleared, a grand reopening: Arnett’s was reborn.
“I mean here is a family that helped us hang the flag. The American flag,” said Darlene. “We wanted to go back to the 50s, to the red Chevy table.”
A new chapter for the landmark on South Street. But the celebration lasted just 24 hours.
“The day after we reopened,” said Darlene. Tests revealed she is living with lung cancer.
“I did get some news,” said Darlene. “I’m going through some medical stuff right now.”
It is a diagnosis Darlene hasn’t shared publicly until now.
“I’m just seeing a little bit of light and keep moving forward. You know,” said Darlene.
“She doesn’t talk about it too much. She just keeps on going. That is Darlene,” said Larry Gross.
Her illness is just another hurdle this business owner plans on overcoming.
“To get things done, she’s going to go at it as hard as she can from sun up to sun down. Everyone knows that,” said customer, Gwenn Journey.
Darlene Arnett sticks to her bottom line.
“Just feelings of gratitude,” said Darlene. “They make me happy. I love seeing them each and every day.”
When customers come first, you profit in more ways than one.
“I’m not going to give up,” proclaimed Darlene. “I’m not a quitter. I’ve never been a quitter. I’m just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
Arnett’s Family Store is located at 3020 South Street in Chester. They’re open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
Darlene is organizing a classic car show on Sept.18.
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