Farmer co-op and Great Harvest are a potent combination

Great Harvest Bread Co. expanding to Pasco

Mike Stoker, owner of Great Harvest Bread Co. in Kennewick, gives information about a second location he's planning to open later this year in Pasco.
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Mike Stoker, owner of Great Harvest Bread Co. in Kennewick, gives information about a second location he's planning to open later this year in Pasco.

When Bleyhl Co-op opens a new, dramatically expanded store in Pasco this year, it will offer a little something extra for customers.

The Grandview-based farmers’ cooperative is incorporating Great Harvest Bread Co. into the store it plans to build at Road 68 and Chapel Hill.

Bleyhl breaks ground on the 20,000-square-foot store next month. When it opens this fall, it will replace the existing 5,000-square-foot Bleyhl store on Pasco’s Ainsworth Avenue.

Russ Ward, vice president for retail, said Ainsworth is bursting at the seams with farm supplies, animal products, work wear and other gear. With the lease set to expire, the company opted to build a new, larger store rather than try to make a tight situation work.

Bleyhl has big ambitions for Pasco and Great Harvest will play a starring role in the company’s plan to turn its business into a destination for customers from throughout the region.

The co-op wanted a unique customer experience and a place where its farmer customers could gather. It also wanted something to attract urban customers.

Ward said it considered a coffee shop.

But in Great Harvest, it found a natural ally in owners Mike and Karrie Stoker. The couple opened the Kennewick Great Harvest bakery and deli in 2012 under a franchise agreement with the bakery-and-deli chain’s Montana parent.

Mike grew up on a wheat farm in Othello and worked in international trade and for ConAgra Foods. Karrie is a Tri-City native who graduated from Kamiakin High School. The couple raised five daughters in the Mid-Columbia.

The couple run Great Harvest with unusual freedom for a franchise. They pay royalties to use Great Harvest recipes, but are free to run it as they see fit.

“I could sell spark plugs in the lobby,” Mike joked.

For the record, he does not.

The Kennewick bakery creates everything from scratch and even mills its own flour, using wheat sourced from Montana and Washington. It sources fruits and vegetables from area growers when it can.

To Bleyhl, Great Harvest and the Stokers’ commitment to scratch baking and fresh ingredients made it a natural fit for a farmer-owned cooperative.

“We are very excited to bring them in,” he said.

The local Great Harvest operation is a family-owned business that has never strayed far from its agricultural roots.

After college, Mike Stoker worked in international sales for more than 20 years, focused on Japan. ConAgra Foods, then parent to french fry giant Lamb Weston, gave him a chance to stay in the Northwest.

But five years ago, the couple was receptive to a new challenge and they found it in the form of a Great Harvest outlet in Bellevue. Intrigued by the fresh ingredients and healthy fare, they investigated bringing it home to the Tri-Cities.

In another departure for a franchise, they didn’t lease space. Instead, they constructed their own building and a neighboring office building, a move that gives them control over their location and a long-term investment for the future.

Their hunch that Great Harvest would find a following in the Tri-Cities paid off when it opened. Kennewick set a new grand opening sales record for the brand, Mike Stoker said.

The Stokers weren’t looking to expand to Pasco. But like Bleyhl, they saw a natural partner in a farmer-owned co-operative..

Bleyhl operates retail stores in Grandview, Zillah and Sunnyside and fueling stations. Farmers are the company’s core audience. Ward hopes the new location will help woo urban customers to the brand.

The new store is three times the size of the Ainsworth spot, which will close when the current lease expires.

Bleyhl’s is rolling out its new identity as a True Value outlet under a new partnership with the brand. The Great Harvest-anchored Bleyhl’s will be the small chain’s new flagship, according to Ward.

The Kennewick Great Harvest Bread Co. is at 8378 W. Grandridge Blvd. Hours are 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday.

Famous Dave’s is not closing

Famous Dave’s BBQ is not closing its Kennewick location near Columbia Center. Last week, news broke that its neighbor, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, is closing its Kennewick restaurant. The close proximity apparently inspired inaccurate rumors that Famous Dave’s too is closing, staffers said.

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Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell