Customer Profile: Caso’s Country Foods in Okanogan

Bluebird Community

As a girl who grew up on orchards and later went on to fruit sales, Stephanie Kraemer knows her fruit. “Apples, cherries, and pears–that was my whole world before buying a grocery store,” Kraemer says. Kraemer, who with her husband, Clark, purchased Caso’s Country Foods in Okanogan, WA, just two and a half years ago, was raised on Oroville orchards and developed her appreciation for fresh produce early. “Dad was a grower and an orchardist,” she says. “I know the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables to a healthy diet. I also value quality, since I always had access to great produce.”

Working in fruit sales for 18 years–10 of them in international fruit sales–Kraemer says that she has a great appreciation of all that goes into growing, harvesting, and shipping produce, to stock grocery stores in response to customer demand. The exacting standards she had for the quality of the fruit she shipped while in sales carried over to her role in buying for Caso’s Country Foods. “I’m quite critical of the quality of what we carry,” she says.

Her commitment to high-quality produce as well as her dedication to the Okanogan region drives Kraemer’s buying strategy; she sources local and regional produce and other products whenever possible. In fact, Kraemer’s decision to seek out local products was made simultaneously with her decision to buy the store. “Immediately my brain said ‘I want this whole section of things from the Okanogan area,'” she said. “So I’m constantly trying to find local artisans and growers, to discover fresh things.”

It was this spirit of exploration that led Kraemer to Bluebird Grain Farms. “I was up in Winthrop at the Rocking Horse Bakery,” she says, “and I learned about Bluebird’s products. I knew I needed to reach out and learn more about them. When I saw how passionate Bluebird is about supplying nutritious products that are grown locally and produced sustainably–well, it was just all the things that I loved.” As she does with any new product she tests in the store, Kraemer went broad with her first Bluebird order. “I started with everything,” she says. “I didn’t know what customers would want. So far it’s going quite well.”

Kraemer says that although she and Clark are relatively new to retail grocery work, they’re backed by a solid team of employees. “We’re learning from them,” Kraemer says. “The core team stayed on. They’ve been unbelievably helpful to us as we learn the business. We so appreciate their support. I don’t know how we would be doing this without them.” For the Kraemers, walking into an industry that they had no experience in was “quite the learning curve,” Kraemer says. “But it’s fun to learn something new.”

“It caught our adult daughter a bit off guard when we bought the business though,” she adds. “She was off having her own adventures and thought we were stable in our careers. And then suddenly here we were, navigating the unknown.”

Kraemer relies on both her team’s recommendations and her sense of adventure to guide her purchases. “I get excited about offering new and different things,” she says. “I like to cook and I’ve traveled quite a both personally and for my previous job in fruit sales. I know there are so many flavors and foods out there that are so delicious, as well as healthy and nutritious. It thrills me to offer these flavors to others.” Although Clark isn’t involved in the daily operations of the store, Kraemer says that he’s a cook with an adventuresome palate, which influences some of her decisions about the products Caso’s stocks.

As far as predicting what products will be big hits with her Okanogan customers, Kraemer says “It’s a bit of trial and error. I keep making investments in offering things in our valley that might not be offered elsewhere.” She adds, “My real passion in the store is watching other businesses succeed and grow, and I can help them do that by carrying and promoting their products.” She mentions some of the area growers and producers she favors along with Bluebird: Be Well juices, Coulee Farms flowers and baked goods, Cyrus Saffron, Spiceology signature spice blends. Kraemer says that part of her investment in small area businesses comes from her curiosity about “someone starting something from scratch and growing it into a success.”

When COVID hit, just 18 months into the Kraemers’ ownership of Caso’s, the store was challenged less by supply issues than by transportation complications. Sure, Caso’s had to sell toilet paper by the roll just like all the other stores, as panicked buyers scooped up excessive supplies of the newly commodified item. But in terms of stocking the store with fresh produce and staples, the Kraemers had to figure out how to get food from farms to their shelves and bins. “We didn’t lack for items that we could pick up ourselves,” Kraemer says. “When we couldn’t get things from a supplier we reached out directly to farms. It got crazy there for a while. My husband was making weekly runs to the Basin to buy potatoes and beans.”

Kraemer credits her staff with keeping the store open and the people–both customers and employees–safe. “It was just navigating the unknown that was the most challenging part,” she says. “As an essential business, we got all this information about what we should be doing, but it changed daily.  It’s a credit to our team that we were able to stay open, stocked, and safe.”

Kraemer emphasizes the value she places on workplace safety, not just following OSHA guidelines, but creating a healthy and inclusive work environment. “We are dedicated to the customers and to our team,” she says. “It’s extremely important to us. We are committed to the health and wellness of our community at all different levels because it’s all connected. We feel like if we create a positive and inclusive work environment for our team, it’s going to make the customer experience even better too.”

This commitment to community is something that the Kraemers have carried over from the previous owners of Caso’s, who Kraemer says were “very involved in community, with strong support for kids and youth sports.” The Kraemers have diversified their community outreach, continuing to support youth activities but also in the Imagination Library and animals.

Ah yes, animals. “We have lots of animals,” Kraemer says. She and Clark manage a 21-cat sanctuary, and she serves on the board of OkanDogs, the Okanogan Region’s only dog rescue organization.

Kraemer’s path to becoming a retail grocery store owner/operator was somewhat unconventional, with her previous professional background in insurance, sales, marketing, and rental properties, as well as some business ventures she and Clark have undertaken together over the years.

But ultimately what drew her to Caso’s is a passion for the Okanogan community.

“I’ve always lived in the Okanogan Region,” Kraemer says. “For many years I commuted to Chelan and traveled a lot for work. I was working in different communities, and I loved those communities, but they weren’t mine. Part of the big draw for us buying the business was to be more involved in our home community. This is home. This is where we wanted to be.”

For more information about Caso’s Country Foods, visit their website.