On Monday night Matt Zupancich fell asleep early reading to his kids. At 8:30 p.m. he was awakened by his wife to the news that the market he had managed for 17 years was on fire. By the time the sun came up on Tuesday, Zup's was a total loss and residents of this tiny town in northeast Minnesota awoke to find their community's only grocery store was gone.
Zupancich was on the scene all night and watched as firefighters from around the area tried to save the building.
"I mean it was plumes of smoke. As high as you could see. Lit up by all the fire trucks around it. It was a sight to behold, not something you expect to see ever,' he said. "But it does happen."
Zupancich said he can't speculate yet on what caused the fire. In the back there's a gaping hole in the metal siding near where the fire started, where there used to be a smokehouse. Zup's is well known for its homemade sausage. The store also processed deer for hunters and had 30 deer inside when the fire started.
"I've already had somebody ask me about their deer. I said it's very well done, sir. I apologize, there's only so much I can do."
Zupanich is already itching to demolish the old store and start building a new one. Until that happens, the nearest full-service grocery store to Cook is in Virginia, about 30 miles away.
Zupancich said he has insurance to pay employees while the store is closed. And he promised, they will rebuild.
"Oh absolutely. We'll be back, we owe it to the town to be back."
Zup's is an institution in northeast Minnesota. It was the first store opened in Ely more than a century ago. Now there are five stores across the region. Eight Zupancichs are on the board. They work as managers, meat cutters and sausage makers.
Matt's cousin Ed Zupancich manages the store in Babbitt, where in 2011, that store was also destroyed by a fire.
"It's pretty devastating for a small town. I know it was, it was tough on this town, but they made it. You know, we're all the better for it. It's just that it's a tough experience to go through," he said.
It took eight months and around $3 million, but Zup's did rebuild in Babbitt.
In many ways, towns like Babbitt and Cook are lucky, because elsewhere across rural Minnesota, grocery stores are a dying breed.
"It's downright heartbreaking sometimes to see how many of these small town stores are closing," said Kathy Draeger, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies rural grocery stores. Dozens of grocery stores have closed across rural Minnesota in recent years, victims to big box competition and other factors.
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Draeger, who also directs the university extension's Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, keeps a database of rural groceries, and just in the past few weeks she said stores have closed in Fairfax and Randall.
Rural stores face stiff competition from bigger stores in larger cities, and from dollar stores. And many of their owners are getting older. Draeger encourages consumers to support them because they provide a vital service in parts of the state known as food deserts, places where there aren't other grocery stores for miles.
"I know it's a private benefit, but there's also a lot of public good in these grocery stores that help keep ... individuals and families and communities fed," she said.
In Cook, a steady stream of community members approach Matt Zupancich as he gazes at the store where he's worked for nearly two decades. He hugs employees and tells them he'll be in touch with more information soon.
He said he'd love to have a new store up and running in four months, but knows that's probably not realistic.
"If we can get up by next summer and we can accommodate travelers coming through and our local customer base, then we're OK."