COVID-19

2020 Businesspeople of the Year: Southold Pharmacy

One thing that makes Marguerite Schondebare’s blood boil is hearing someone talk about making a visit to a CVS, a Rite Aid or any other big-box store for pharmaceuticals. She has her reasons.

Those reasons extend beyond supporting local businesses as opposed to a chain. Ms. Schondebare, 74, has lived in Southold for almost 50 years and has been a Southold Pharmacy customer since 1973. Southold Pharmacy has won her loyal support with its friendly customer service that some say goes above and beyond the call of duty. She can tell stories like how one of the pharmacy’s owners, Paulette Ofrias, went out of her way to do research and found a way for Ms. Schondebare to obtain her medication at half the price. But what really struck Ms. Schondebare were the unexpected — but greatly appreciated — phone calls she received from the pharmacy after she had a knee replacement in 2017.

“They would call me up daily to see if there was anything I needed,” she said. “I thought that was so amazing. I was so shocked. You would expect that from your church maybe, but not from your pharmacy. That meant a lot to me.”

That’s the sort of service with a personal touch that has earned Southold Pharmacy a place in the hearts of its customers. Southold Pharmacy had long been known for such things as making free deliveries to North Fork customers (even special after-hours deliveries) and keeping the store open for customers expected to arrive after closing time. It’s the sort of service big-box stores don’t (and can’t) offer because of their scale.

Being an independent, small-town pharmacy, Southold Pharmacy operates differently to meet the needs of its customers, who are also its neighbors. When COVID-19 hit, Southold Pharmacy answered the call. It has remained open for business throughout the pandemic. In recognition, it has been named The Suffolk Times’ Business of the Year for 2020.

The pharmacy, founded in 1963 by Donald Scott and William Verme, has adjusted and changed with the times. In the year of COVID-19, it provided curbside pickup, was quick to establish health and safety protocols and, perhaps most importantly, remained open.

“My employees came to work, which I will forever be grateful to them for,” said Ms. Ofrias, who owns Southold Pharmacy along with her sister, Suzanne Fujita, and Suzanne’s husband, David Fujita. Ms. Ofrias, her husband, Greg, and Ms. Fujita own Shelter Island Heights Pharmacy.

To customers and the staff at Southold Pharmacy, which numbers about 25 employees, it is a special place, an institution deeply embedded in the community.

“The difference is how we treat our customers — or we call them our patients — and what we do for them every day on a daily basis because we actually do care,” supervising pharmacist Ginny Corazzini said. “We don’t consider anybody a number. We know our customers by their first names.”

Sales clerk Irene Sledjeski said, “We care about the people that we service and try to do more, a little step above, to shine out a little bit.”

Nothing, though, could have prepared the pharmacy for the pandemic. Brian Walker, the store’s general manager for 22 years, had three objectives back in March: Keep the employees safe, keep the customers safe and keep the doors open.

“We sanitized the door handles,” he said. “We sanitized the pens that customers signed credit cards with, the signature tablets for the prescriptions, but instead of doing it every so often, we did it with every customer. We started with the masks right away.”

More vulnerable older staff members were given time off and young employees picked up extra shifts. Through it all, Mr. Walker said, he has received minimal requests for time off. “People want to work,” he said. “They realize that they’re doing something important and they want to be part of it. They don’t want to be on the sidelines. It’s moving. It gets me emotional sometimes.”

Mr. Scott worked at the pharmacy until his death in 2012. What would he think about how the pharmacy has performed during these trying times?

Said Ms. Sledjeski, “I think he’s probably looking down on us and being pretty proud.”

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