Starting one's own business, especially during trying economic times, is anything but easy. For many proprietors, risks are high, rewards seemingly few. Still, many men and women take on the challenge, and with persistence, some achieve longstanding success.
We were fortunate to get to know pharmacist Atta Rehman, owner of Hiawatha Pharmacy, when it opened its location within the Super Foodtown on North Beverwyck Road in Lake Hiawatha in late 2011. At that time, he was looking at new challenges with enthusiasm and hope.
Months later, we checked in with Rehman again when he instituded his Dispose My Meds program, a service to help residents safely rid themselves of expired and unwanted medications. He was still focused on building his business and moving it toward success.
So when we launched Spotlight on Parsippany, our weekly chat with the principal of a local business or organization, we knew we had to check in with the young pharmacist to see how things are faring now.
1. How did the winter treat Hiawatha Pharmacy, and what's up for spring and summer?
Pharmacies usually get busier during the winter months. Flu season is in full effect, there's the common cold and good old fashioned respiratory/sinus infections. Hiawatha Pharmacy did see an increase in prescriptions this winter. The next few months is when pharmacies typically see a decrease in volume. So, as a small business owner, the challenge will be to keep up the volume, re-invent myself and the business, add something to attract new business and continue to take care of current customers. Hiawatha Pharmacy already has a $10 generic drug program and discount plans for uninsured customers. I want to continue to build on that in the spring and summer. I also will continue to offer the drug take back program called Dispose My Meds which has been amazingly successful. Allergy season kicks in soon and people will be looking for relief of their allergy symptoms. When peak season hits, retailers tend to keep prices high because the demand is already there. Hiawatha Pharmacy will be aggressively lowering prices on all over-the-counter allergy medicine beginning April 1. The goal is to have the lowest prices in town for all allergy medications, including ones that require an ID and signature.
2. You've been doing this inside the Super Foodtown for going on two years now. How are you finding it? How has the economy treated you?
Moving into the Super Foodtown in November 2011 was a blessing. The business was struggling, visibility was low, parking was limited to street parking on a busy section of North Beverwyck Road and people did not realize we were there! Since the pharmacy relocated, business has been steadily improving. There is better visibility, more foot traffic, better parking, a friendly atmosphere and an overall higher level of convenience for my customers. The economy has negatively affected many individuals and businesses. Daily expenses are rising while wages decrease or remain the same. When individuals suffer, local businesses will suffer. Sometimes customers have to decide whether to pay for their prescriptions or their utility bill. For my business, my faith teaches me to make an effort for an honest living and things will fall into place. So if one week, things look gloomy, I have faith that things can turn around the next week, as long as I do not lose focus on my everyday goals. As for my customers, I try to work with them to help keep medications affordable—anyone without insurance is automatically enrolled in a free discount plan, which covers most medications. Also, several customers have monthly charge accounts. This helps them navigate through expenses and prioritize what they need to do before they pay for prescriptions each month.
3. Hiawatha Pharmacy has been on the front lines in the battle to get people to dispose of their medications safely. How is that going, and what is the range of services you offer in this regard?
Dispose My Meds is a program offered to independent pharmacists through the National Community Pharmacists Association. This program allows the pharmacy to take back unused and expired medications. Flushing medication down the toilet, throwing medication down the sink and throwing pills in the trash are common practices. All these may lead to contamination of our environment or water supply. Also, drug abuse is not limited to narcotics. It could manifest itself by a teenager experimenting with unused over-the-counter pain relievers stored in your bathroom cabinet. Any unused medication has the potential for abuse. Proper disposal is just one way Hiawatha Pharmacy can reduce drug abuse in our community. To participate, simply bring your unused or expired medications, prescription or non-prescription, to the pharmacy. It is preferred to leave the label with the medication name on the container. All personal information— name, address, prescription number—is removed or blacked out before the medication is put into a Take Back Program container. Once the container is full, it is shipped to Sharps Compliance, a facility in Texas, where the medications are sorted and destroyed in a proper and environmentally safe way by licensed and trained professionals. I also keep an ongoing tally on the amount and cost of what is being disposed of. So far, the amount is well over $15,000 worth of medications and over 10,000 units (pills, capsules, etc.)!
4. Tell us about your most interesting customer interaction.
There are too many interesting moments to list. That is the great thing about what I do. Being an accessible health care professional right in the center of town does wonders! I talk to so many people, hear so many stories, learn about so many lives. I am in a wonderful town. From the stories I hear about World War II and Vietnam from the citizens who served our country, to the horse stables on Route 46 and North Beverwyck Road which customers remember clearly; from everyone's physician being Dr. Simon to hearing about four independent pharmacies that once thrived on North Beverwyck Road—I've learned a lot. One reason I opened my own pharmacy was to capture the essence of what pharmacy used to be. With big chain pharmacies, the personal interaction of a pharmacist is becoming a dying breed. I am here to change that.
Let me tell you of an interesting thing that happened last week: I ordered lunch from a local restaurant. One of my customers called me to ask if their prescription was ready. I told her it was ready and asked if she was coming, to do me a favor and pick up my order on the way. She agreed but insisted that I don't pay. She wanted to pay for my lunch. After going back and forth, I gave in and thanked her. Ten minutes later, the restaurant owner calls me and says, "'Some guy' came in and asked if Atta order food. I told him he did and that 'guy' paid for your lunch and and said to tell you 'Thanks for everything'." That 'guy' was another one of my customers who I told some time back that I order from that restaurant often. He took a chance and walked in to see if I ordered anything that day and coincidentally I did! I called my other customer back and told her to pick up the food and believe it or not, it's already paid for! This incident makes me believe that my pharmacy business goes beyond filling prescriptions. It solidifies my belief that we are bigger and better as one community, unselfishly and genuinely caring about each other and doing good for one another in any capacity.
5. Why Parsippany?
Parsippany is home. I was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens and moved to Parsippany when I was in high school. I lived in Parsippany for 16 years. My parents still own a home here. My first job was at AC Moore (currently where LA Fitness is located) in 1997. I worked part-time as a delivery driver for Domino's Pizza in Parsippany while in pharmacy school. My first pharmacy job was at Rite Aid in 1999 and my career as a pharmacist started with Drug Fair. When I decided to open my own business, there was no doubt about Parsippany. Having a personal connection to Parsippany and knowing the history of all the independent pharmacies that thrived and then disappeared, a challenge to resurrect that history was in front of me. I have an opportunity to grow my business, in a tough economy with stern competition, by taking care of the residents of a town that gave me so much. I have always been, still am and will always be ready for that challenge.