Dorset restaurant owners mourn fire loss

Half the restaurants in Dorset, a town of just 22 residents which bills itself as the "restaurant capital of the world," burned down Thursday morning.

Of the town's four successful eating establishments, two were set ablaze, likely by a lighting strike according to Park Rapids Assistant Fire Chief Terry Long.

Shortly after 4 a.m., Rick Kempnich got a call from a friend at Long's department. Kempnich owns Companeros Mexican Restaurant and Dorset House Pizza with his wife Laura.

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Laura picked up the phone and nearly collapsed, Rick said. There were reports of a fire at the Dorset House.

"We jumped in the car and raced over there," Rick Kempnich said. "We hoped it was just a small fire, that it could be contained. Then we saw an orange glow in the sky."

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By the time he arrived, the Dorset House was totally engulfed, and flames were crossing to Companeros. Firefighters launched water pumped from the nearby Little Sand Lake while the Kempnichs watched their livelihoods burn.

By mid-morning, the flames were extinguished. Long ruled both buildings a total loss.

"A big chunk of the downtown is gone," he said.

Kempnich started Companeros in an old wood building 29 years ago with his father Mike. In those days, Dorset wasn't known for its restaurants.

"Dorset was known for being the smallest town in the country to have a bank," he said. "Then the bank moved out and we had nothing."

Dorset also is known for electing a 3-year-old mayor.

The town has no formal city government and the vote for mayor is a paid fundraiser for regional charities.

After Companeros started up, the restaurants began working together to bring in tourism, tailoring menus to cater to any whim of taste. Twenty years ago, as business improved, Kempnich bought the Dorset House. Other small businesses popped up to serve restaurant goers.

Over the years he said his restaurants, along with the Dorset Cafe and LaPasta Italian Eatery, brought locals together. Most years he employs between 75 and 100 people from all over the area. Some have been around for 25 years.

"Dorset is like a family," he said. "We built it with restaurants."

Now half of those restaurants are gone. Kempnich doesn't know what to do. He'd like to start over, but said his insurance won't pay enough for a total rebuild.

For now at least, Dorset can't claim the title of world's restaurant capital.