“’I was born in a pharmacy,’ I like to say,” the pharmacist Raja Sannidhi, 39, the newish owner of Capitol Drugs, tells me with a slight smile.
Hold on. You weren’t aware that the local drug store had even changed hands in November 2015? “A lot of times patients are like, ‘We didn’t know there was a change of ownership,’” Sannidhi said. “That’s our point.”
Originally from India, Sannidhi grew up in New Jersey after his father, now 65, also a pharmacist and still working, moved the family to the States in 1982. Sannidhi’s generic American accent doesn’t hint at his being born seven hours outside Hyderabad, a city of nearly seven million. This guy is calm, friendly, and very earnest about his chosen profession – and why he does it.
The family has three additional pharmacies in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Then there are those in northern California, Texas and Florida. “My family is full of pharmacists and physicians…it’s like our family trait.”
After earning his PharmD at Brooklyn’s Long Island University in 2003, Sannidhi ran the family business for about ten years. He had been on the East Coast so long that “to expand was getting a little difficult for me,” Sannidhi said. “[The area] was already saturated with pharmacies.”
“Then Capitol fell into our laps,” Sannidhi said. In March 2016 he moved his wife and two kids to West Hills, the Valley. The biggest perk? “We love the weather that we moved down from,” Sannidhi said. “No snow.”
Neighborhood businesses with a defined community customer base – Jewish, Latino, LGBT, families – seem to be the objective. Sannidhi: “Yes it is. I’m all about community service.”
If you read Capitol Drugs’ social reviews, although some consumers express frustration, there is a lot of evidence to back up his claim. “There simply is no better place to have an Rx filled,” Mark H. said on Yelp. (In full disclosure, Capitol is my chosen pharmacy because I like the staff’s friendliness, and I don’t have to wait half an hour like I do at CVS down the street.)
Superior service seems to be the family business model. “That’s what I grew up with,” Sannidhi explained. “We’re a staple in the community [on the East Coast] and that’s what attracted me to Capitol. I just felt like it was home.”
Former owner Ruth Tittle was instrumental in Sannidhi acquiring the business. “The great thing is that it’s been around 30 years,” Sannidhi said. The fact that Tittle had “run through the wear and tear of the industry, the highs and the lows” gained his confidence.
Business acumen and commitment is one thing, but family loyalty sealed the deal. “The fact that Ruth was able to keep this legacy going for her brother,” Sannidhi explained, “that attracted me more than anything else. She had a purpose.”
Lloyd Tittle, Ruth’s brother, was the pharmacist who started Capitol Drugs at the Sherman Oaks location in the ‘80s. The WeHo store opened in 1996. He died from HIV/AIDS in the mid-’90s.
“[Lloyd] was a pharmacist who believed in a holistic approach,” Sannidhi said. “That’s why we have the huge alternative medicine side and the sports nutrition side.” Capitol also owns the Power Zone, WeHo’s original exercise supplement emporium. Connected to the drug store by a modest archway inside, Power Zone has its own sidewalk entrance.
Capitol employs 40 people between both stores, with the majority of them in WeHo. Full benefits including healthcare and 401(k) are provided.
No staff changes were made when Sannidhi acquired Capitol. “We still have the same staff,” Sannidhi said. “Your main pharmacist, pharm tech, patient advocate and physician advocates, they’re still the same.”
Many customers know Fred, the pharmacist with the warm southern accent (there 10+ years), Russell, the pharmacy tech and patient advocate (20+ years), Kim, the store manager who always makes sure you get what you need (seven years), and Fanya, the salesperson specializing in alternative medicines who also is fluent in Russian (20 years). “Russell Ybarra,” Sannidhi said, “he’s my solid go-to guy. He knows everyone.”
In last week’s WeHo@Work on Book Soup, Amazon was mentioned as the corporate monolith grabbing market share from independent businesses in the ultra-competitive world of literary commerce. In the prescription-filling universe, Walgreens, CVS and RiteAid come to mind for many.
How do Capitol, and Sannidhi’s other community pharmacies, survive?
“It’s rough and tough,” Sannidhi admitted. “Because CVS owns their own insurance company, Caremark. Walgreens has contracts with them. RiteAid has contracts with them. But the bottom line is…it’s the service.”
Much like Book Soup’s CEO Allison K. Hill outlined, Sannidhi said, “The community aspect that we bring to the table…they [the big chains] won’t.” That’s Capitol’s competitive edge.
The Indian-born, New Jersey-raised entrepreneur offered a dramatic example of the type of service he extends. “It was an injectable to prevent heart disease,” Sannidhi explained. “CVS couldn’t fill it because they’re not taking the patient’s insurance.” When Sannidhi learned the patient hadn’t had her medicine for three days and couldn’t drive from Simi Valley to pick it up, he told her: “Alright, I’ll drive it myself to you.” Incredibly, it took three attempts to get her the medication.
“Now I’ve built a bond,” Sannidhi said. “And that’s what it’s about.”
Sannidhi and his family value the teachings of Hinduism. When they discovered the Malibu Hindu Temple in Calabasas it was a pleasant surprise. “It’s a huge community. That temple up Las Virgenes Road, it’s gorgeous. We sort of ran into it by accident.” Sannidhi also told me that large Hindi populations live throughout Orange County, which many Angelenos (including the one writing this column) may not realize.
Growing up in a defined ethnic community in the States prepared Sannidhi for addressing the unique challenges and needs of his customers. “In 1998, we took over a Hasidic Jewish pharmacy [that was] in that neighborhood for three generations,” Sannidhi said. “I know kosher. I know Passover. People look at me and say, ‘How do you know this holiday?’ And I say, ‘I grew up with it.’” For Passover, “the rabbi comes in, blesses our pharmacy.” They even post a list of the kosher products they sell to guide customers.
Catholics get the same first class treatment. “We have a pharmacy in Brooklyn that’s mainly Latino,” Sannidhi continued, “and we close early for Christmas.” “Good Friday we send everyone home. Easter, people don’t work.”
In WeHo, Sannidhi and his team focus on the distinct medical needs of HIV/AIDS patients, the LGBT community, the exercise community (24 Hour Fitness is right next door) and the Russian community. In Sherman Oaks, it’s about families.
Outreach is the WeHo pharmacy’s main marketing tactic. They value face-to-face conversations with physician groups like Southern California Men’s Medical Group and nonprofit organizations.
“We work with Being Alive, APLA, APAIT,” Sannidhi said. “With the Black AIDS Institute, we did a lunch for them a couple of times talking about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis).” Add to that list Pride and the AIDSWalk and you’re talking a full roster of ongoing community engagement.
Many WeHo residents have seen the health fair Capitol Drugs holds along Santa Monica Boulevard in October and March. Dozens of booths from various healthcare organizations and workout supplement companies dot the sidewalk. Up to 700 people attend, according to Sannidhi.
This past spring Southern California Men’s Medical Group inoculated 300 adults against meningitis there. And another group had an HIV testing truck come. “First one we’ve ever done and they got nine people walking in the store getting tested,” Sannidhi said proudly. Apparently the nonprofit told him they were so pleased with their conversion ratio that they asked to come back in six months.
As for Capitol Drugs’ future, Sannidhi is clear. “We’re not changing anything,” he said, “and we’re not taking anything away … We’re making sure that Capitol is still a safe haven for patients to come to – and understand that they will be taken care of no matter what.”
I asked what has surprised Sannidhi most when he reflects on adding Capitol Drugs to his portfolio. “There’s a closeness family-wise, and also community-wise,” Sannidhi said. “It feels big [WeHo], but when it boils down to it, it’s a small community, tight-knit.”
Didn’t he experience that in good ol’ NYC? “They have the Village and [other] areas,” Sannidhi acknowledged. “It’s not the same, definitely not the same as WeHo.”
So what is it, exactly? “It’s like a small town,” Sannidhi said.
8578 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069