(From left) Jami Wallar, Kelly Breemeersch and Jennifer McCarty, in 1999 and 2021.
Pull your car into the drive-thru at the Walgreens in Coon Rapids, Minn., and there is a good chance you’ll come face to face with Jami Wallar, Kelly Breemeersch or Jennifer McCarty – three best friends who have worked side by side for 22 years. Known in the greater Minneapolis area as “the store with those three ladies,” this is a place where customers are addressed by name and multiple generations of families have sought care.
Under their charge, the store has also become more like a community center – the site of Christmas celebrations, softball games, birthday parties and retirement send-offs. It’s where several medical careers have bloomed. Previous employees even ask to pick up shifts here and there just to come in and spend the day with friends.
The three women started their careers at different Walgreens locations around Minneapolis 28 years ago after graduating from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy. Breemeersch and McCarty worked at a Walgreens in North Metro, and Wallar at one in South Metro. When Breemeersch got the call to transfer to the Coon Rapids location in 1999, she accepted. A pharmacy manager position opened up shortly after, and she knew just who to call.
“I called Jennifer to see if she would be interested because I knew she was looking at switching stores at the time because of the commute,” says Breemeersch. But McCarty, who was pregnant at the time, wasn’t interested in taking on the pharmacy manager role. “Then I called up Jami, and I begged and pleaded for her to come over with me. We had just gotten things operating the way we wanted to at the other store and I told her I’d do anything she wanted at this store if she would just come over.”
Wallar had never even heard of Coon Rapids. But, knowing what a great team they’d make, she accepted. When Wallar and Breemeersch figured out a schedule that could accommodate both Wallar and McCarty, who had young children at home, McCarty accepted too. Within a month, they were all behind the counter—the same one they would work at for the next two decades and beyond.
“Back then, we were constantly moving. If we were caught up, we would work on what’s next to better the store. I haven’t sat down in 22 years!” Breemeersch jokes.
Forming a “pharmily”
With their shared energy and tenacity, the three ladies transformed the Coon Rapids store into one of the most successful in the Metro North area. The trio mastered operations on top of establishing lasting connections with their patients. When competing pharmacies began to open in neighboring communities, the women rallied to make the store a 24-hour location.
The pharmacy team, in one of the annual “Pharmacy vs. Store” softball games, 2004
“We saw the potential, and we had the energy,” says Wallar. “We always set goals for ourselves. People were coming in late, and we were one of the only stores in the area to be open 24 hours. The pharmacy really started growing after that in terms of volume. It’s a residential area, with lots of houses and apartments. I know I’ve had kids drive through on their own who I used to see as babies. A generation has already grown up since we started working here.”
It’s not just the residents of greater Coon Rapids that call the three women friends. Many of them have become their co-workers. The store is noted for the long tenures of its employees. Adyra Quinn, a pharmacy technician who also transferred to the store in 1999 still works there, and Dave Caroon has served as store manager for 18 years. The women can name dozens of people who started working at the location in their teenage years, as retail employees, pharmacy technicians and pharmacy interns, who are still there today. Many joined the corporate Walgreens team, or are now doctors, physician assistants, or professors.
“They’re literally our family,” McCarty reflects. “We think of them as our children, and we watch with pride as they succeed. This isn’t a job where you don’t know your co-workers. We talk outside of work just as much as we talk at work. Even when we’re on vacation or off for a few days, we’re always checking in.”
The trio looks back fondly on all-staff summer visits to the cabin of another pharmacist, where their kids would play and form lasting friendships. Over the years, they have seen plays, spent holidays together and regularly dined out. The last time they safely came together for a celebration was to see a live band for Breemeersch’s birthday before COVID-19 put a limit on social gatherings.
(From left) Casey McCarty, Lauren Breemeersch, Briana Breemeersch, and Chloe McCarty on the Walgreens float at the Coon Rapids Fourth of July parade, 2009
Beyond the counter and into the community
It’s no wonder the community has put their trust in these women. They know a personal touch is what keeps customers coming back. Before COVID-19, the pharmacy drive-thru window would always be open, even in the most frigid of Minnesota winter temperatures. Today, they still have trouble turning to the pharmacy phone to communicate when they would all prefer to open the window and chat with patients directly.
They note that some customers, who have moved away from Coon Rapids, drive over 100 miles to pick up their prescriptions from a familiar face. The three also scan the obituaries to send sympathy cards if a customer passes away. Only recently did they stop sending out personalized holiday cards when the list of addresses topped 300.
Outside of the store, the women have dedicated their spare time and pharmacy expertise for good. They participate in local charity events and administer vaccines, most recently at a local women’s shelter. Wallar is an active member of the Minnesota Pharmacists Association, and Breemeersch and McCarty volunteer with Roundtable Rx, a medication repository organization that brings unused medications to those in need.
American Heart Association fundraiser walk, 2014
These days, the ladies have taken on new responsibilities, such as administering COVID-19 tests through the drive-thru, or leading vaccination clinics at long-term care facilities. They are mainstays on the pharmacy’s schedule. But with children growing up and spouses retiring, the question has loomed for all three – will they retire soon, too?
“I graduated pharmacy school when I was 30. I’m the one who’s closest to retirement, but these guys keep me here,” says Wallar. Described as their “fearless leader,” she has developed the pharmacy into a working environment where respect – and fun – are of equal importance. “It’s just a nice place to go to work every day, so I keep doing it. Kelly always says to take one day at a time. And that’s what we do.”
Speaking of Breemeersch, her oldest daughter, a pharmacy school student, is nearing her spring graduation date. Her daughter has yet to decide where she wants to apply for a full-time position, and the ladies have taken care to let her decide for herself. But there is a good chance she will follow in her mother’s footsteps in another way.
“On her first day of pharmacy school, I called her to see how it went,” Breemeersch recalls. “She told me she met two girls in class, and she hopes they’ll be her Jami and Jennifer.”