Pharmacy of the Year Finalist Gateway Pharmacy: Caring for a Rust Belt Community

Gateway Pharmacy took to the road with a mobile vaccine clinic to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

After the steel industry left Phoenixville, Pennsylvania in the 1980s, the town’s biggest claim to fame was as the filming location of the 1958 sci-fi horror movie "The Blob." Today, that list has been updated: Phoenixville is also known for being the home of Gateway Pharmacy, a Pharmacy of the Year finalist, an annual award given by Good Neighbor Pharmacy at ThoughtSpot, an annual conference and trade show celebrating independent community pharmacy.

Gateway Pharmacy was founded in the 1950s and pharmacist Mark Szilagyi, RPh, has been involved since his father, Mark Sr, and business partner Henry Katra purchased the pharmacy in 1982. “We basically started when we were 6 years old,” said Szilagyi. “I know 6 sounds young to start in pharmacy, but my mom would get tired of dealing with me, and she would send me into work with my dad.” In the span of 40 years, Szilagyi worked as a stock boy, pharmacy technician, and pharmacy manager before assuming his current role of part owner of Gateway, where Szilagyi and his team strive to offer as many services to their community as possible.

“Going to the pharmacy or to the doctor isn’t always the most exciting or pleasurable experience. When you’re sick or you don’t feel well…your mentality changes,” he said. “I try to impart…[to the staff] that not everybody may want to be here, coming to us. Our goal is to try and make it as easy and pleasant as possible.”

Szilagyi manages that task by encouraging his team to greet customers by name and make an effort to get to know them. In fact, Gateway’s general manager Tricia Gable, knows so many of their customers that “she goes right to the basket when she sees them,” said Szilagyi. “[She] doesn’t have to ask the name. That type of mentality—that we’re here for you, we know who you are, and we’re ready to help you out in any way we can—is good.”

The team at Gateway applied these principles to their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking the opportunity to offer even more services to the local community. Mark Ciarlone, PharmD, the pharmacy’s Good Neighbor Pharmacy business coach, recalled the way the Gateway team pivoted to build up their curbside pickup and delivery service, then entered into a partnership with the local hospital and other community pharmacies to maximize access to the COVID-19 vaccines.

“I was very fortunate to have sat in the room with Mark,” said Ciarlone, explaining how Gateway immediately pooled resources with another local pharmacy it works closely with—“almost like a sister store”—to figure out how many pharmacists they had available and how to reach the most patients. “All pharmacists care about the community, but it’s so evident with [Mark and the team at Gateway]. They’re able to put their patients first in such a manner that it’s more family rather than a customer base,” said Ciarlone.

Phoenixville Mayor Peter Urscheler also sang the praises of Gateway Pharmacy, where he has been a customer for years.

“I personally started going…when I was a caregiver for my mother and father,” he said. “They were both much older and needed durable medical equipment. [Gateway] was one of the few places where I could actually find great equipment—and not just that, but really personalized service.”

During the pandemic, Urscheler and Gateway came together with Valley Forge Fire Company, West End Ambulance, and other Phoenixville municipal services to take a mobile vaccine clinic “from concept to realization in 24 hours.”

“Chester County had set up vaccine clinics but they weren’t always accessible to people there,” Urscheler explained. “And so Mark got involved and said, ‘Let me reach out and see if I’m able to get the vaccines myself.’ I will never forget… I still have a picture of the first day that vaccine was delivered.”

Since that first box of vaccines, the team at Gateway Pharmacy has vaccinated thousands of Phoenixville locals, visiting workplaces and schools, and setting up in parking lots to ensure that underserved community members were not left out.

“Gateway is so much more than a business or a pharmacy within our community,” said Urscheler. “They really are a part of this community. They have given thousands of hours to ensure that every single person in this community was served during COVID-19, and that’s representative of the type of care and commitment they have.”

With the successes of the pharmacy’s COVID-19 response under his belt, Szilagyi is ready to look to the future. “In the fall, we’re going to plan on vaccinating as many people who want to get vaccinated,” he said. “We’re planning on doing flu shots, which I think is going to be another big thing.”

The last 10 years, he said, have been “a difficult drive. There are lot of competitors, a lot of big chains. It’s really a testament to our customers who have stuck with us for years and years; [they] didn’t have to come to us [and] we wouldn’t be here without them.”

Tune in to the latest episode of Over the Counter for more from pharmacist Mark Szilagyi.