Business of the Month: West 14 Apothecary, 312 West 14th Street
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Given a choice between switching pharmacies and breaking a limb, most people would switch pharmacies and, as a bonus, reduce the need to visit one. But the clients of West 14 Apothecary, our May Business of the Month, are not like most people. They seem to find at their pharmacy a level of service that inspires fierce loyalty — loyalty worth a limb.
West 14 Apothecary (312 West 14th Street) has served its neighborhood for over thirty years. Non-clients may be surprised to learn that, because the modest storefront is easy to miss. In 2018, its long-time, retirement-ready owners sold the business to Manish (Manny) Goswami, a pharmacist from Gujarat, India who had moved to the city in 2008. For Manny, this was the culmination of a lengthy career trajectory. He had initially gone into the profession back home, inspired by a childhood desire to help alleviate the severe migraines that afflicted his mother. After completing his training, however, he set his eyes on the goal of opening a clinic in a rural area lacking in medical services — something that would require greater knowledge of the business side of the profession. To acquire this expertise, he enrolled in an MBA program in New York City. Manny worked during this period as a pharmacy technician; but he soon realized that the professional experience he was seeking was only available to pharmacists licensed in this country. This led him to enroll in the pharmacy program that would offer Manny insight into multiple sides of the industry, and inform the choices that would ultimately bring him to West 14th street.
Pharmacy programs require students to rotate through internships that will expose them to different types of practice; for instance, at hospitals, drug manufacturers, and major drugstores. Manny, who greatly values face-to-face contact with customers, always knew that he wanted to work at a pharmacy. His internship stint at CVS convinced him of the type of pharmacy that it would be. Having experienced first-hand the chain’s struggles with customer service, under-staffing, under-budgeting, and staff dissatisfaction, Manny resolved to work instead at a small, independent pharmacy that would grant him the independence and flexibility to treat his customers like family. So when a friend told him that West 14 Apothecary was up for sale, he jumped at the opportunity.
Manny gave his new storefront an overhaul shortly after taking it over, redoing the lighting, fixtures, and the frontage, which he adorned with a fluorescent green-cross evocative of European pharmacy signage. That cross would soon serve as a beacon to the High Line- and Chelsea Market-bound tourists who make up the bulk of his over-the-counter customers. The needs of this clientele determine the selection of traveler essentials and emergency items that make up most of the store’s inventory. What sets this pharmacy apart, however, is not its over-the-counter merchandise, but its prescription service, which Manny seems to have fashioned as a sort of inversion of the kind he encountered at CVS. As he explains:
At the chains, they’re not friendly; they’re overworked. If you go for something, they’ll tell you to come back in an hour, even though a prescription can be filled in a minute. My clients when they come to the pharmacy, I turn them out as soon as possible. I would love to chat with them. But I appreciate their time.
Time, of course, is money. But money is also money. And Manny goes out of his way to save his clients some of that as well. To illustrate: An uninsured customer who goes to Walgreens might pay $200 for a prescribed brand-name medication. An insured one with a high co-pay might pay $50. The pharmacist there has neither the authority nor the time to find ways to reduce those costs. Manny does. He asks permission to contact the prescribing doctor if there is a possibility of switching to a generic alternative. He looks into the availability of manufacturer coupons for which he might be able to sign clients up. And he does this for every single case. As a result, our two hypothetical customers above might have paid $15 and $0, respectively, if they had taken their business to West 14 Apothecary.
Manny’s devoted approach to his work truly shone through during the pandemic, which posed a significant threat to the pharmacy’s clients, a sizable percentage of whom are immuno-compromised. Aware of their underlying condition, Manny ensured that everyone who needed medications would neither go without nor have to put themselves at risk to procure them by making arrangements for the delivery of a 90-day supply. He also had his customers’ welfare foremost in mind when vaccines became available but only through the Department of Health, taking it upon himself to stay by his computer refreshing the appointments page to get slots for his clients — something he managed to do for over ninety of them. This didn’t make the pharmacy any money (and it certainly could have used some at the time, when only government emergency loans and accommodations by the storefront’s long-time independent landlord kept the business from closing). Manny, however, viewed his efforts as part and parcel of running a proper pharmacy.
The stark contrast between Manny’s business approach and that of his corporate counterparts, where operational decisions cascade down from regional managers to local managers to overworked staff, makes it hard to believe that chain pharmacies manage to stay in business. And if it were a level playing field, perhaps they might not. As it turns out, though, it is West 14 Apothecary and other independent pharmacies like it that struggle to stay afloat. Consolidation among insurance companies, drug stores, and pharmacy benefit managers (i.e., PBMs) has allowed the latter to dictate reimbursement terms that redound to the advantage of pharmacy affiliates. When Manny buys a $10 medication, for example, he expects to earn approximately a $2 margin and a $2 dispensing fee. Some PBMs, however, cap his reimbursable margin at $.08 and his dispensing fee at $.75 per prescription, while at the same time reimbursing their affiliated pharmacies at exponentially higher rates. Asked how was able to compete under such conditions, Manny had a brief and ready answer: “customer service!”
At that point in our conversation, a customer and nearby resident walked into the store as if on cue and, catching the drift of our discussion, interrupted with an apology:
I think I understand what you’re doing, and I just wanted to say that you would have to break my legs to make me change pharmacies, because [Manny] is wonderful. He always bends over backwards to do what I need and he’s so efficient and always very timely. I just got over a serious operation, so, for a long time, I couldn’t get out of the house. I was with CVS and it would be impossible to even get through… With Manny, I can always get through on the phone, and he’ll always deliver it to you on the same day. Even when I call in the mid-afternoon.
She then turned to the counter and explained that she had come straight to the doctor and that her prescription might not have arrived yet. By then, however, a technician had emerged from behind the counter and was approaching her to deliver her medication. She did not even have to give her name.
Manny fully understands that offering the level of care that his pharmacy provides entails sacrifice — however critical that sacrifice may be to the business’s survival in the face of competition. He knows, for instance, that he could get a $75K signing bonus for joining CVS, which struggles to retain its pharmacists. In explaining his decision not to, Manny refers back to the reasons that set him on his career path and to the insights that have shaped his career since:
CVS’ whole approach is to monopolize the market so that you have no choice. And then, they can rob you. My idea is that, if I can survive myself and pay my two employees and the rent of the space, that’s enough. I’m not greedy. My whole idea was to become a pharmacist to help people. If I can make a change in somebody’s life, that will give me peace.
Because most reasonable people should be happy to risk a limb to switch over to West 14 Apothecary and receive the level of service and care that Manny provides, we’re thrilled to name his pharmacy our May 2023 Business of the Month.
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One response to “Business of the Month: West 14 Apothecary, 312 West 14th Street”
Thank you for your article on the 14th Street Apothecary. I have been a customer of the pharmacy since 1995 when Lenny was running the place. Eventually he sold the business to Raj and now we have Manny. This a long tradition of incredible good service at this pharmacy that begun with Lenny which passed on to Raj and now Manny. When Blue Cross Blue Shields (BCBS) prohibited Manny to provide prescription medication in an attempt to close down the competition from small pharmacies. I led a fight against this unjust policy, but had to switch to the dreadful CVS one of BCBS corporate partners. The service at CVS was inefficient and impersonal. I am glad that the Biden Administration establish that medications now are handled by Medicare and Medicaid instead of the health insurance companies like BCBS. Therefore, since April 1st I am more than happy to be back with the 14th Street Apothecary. I know that Manny will be there for whatever I need. You’ve chosen an outstanding neighborhood small business to honor. We are proud to have the Apothecary in our piece of New York and thankful for Manny tireless service.