The only grocery store in Aurora, Minn., has closed — leaving another small city without a spot to buy fresh vegetables. Or fresh meat.
Last week, the owners of Zup's Food Market shuttered the Aurora location after years of lagging sales and rising costs.
"It was hard," said Jim Zupancich, one of a dozen co-owners of Zupancich Brothers Inc. "It feels like we've failed the community, having to do this."
Aurora resident Helen Armstrong shopped at "our Zup's" several times a week to support the family business as rumors arose about its impending closure.
"We will miss it being a part of our town," she said. "A grocery store is an anchor for your community."
Similar pressures have burdened small grocery stores across the state. Between 2000 and 2013, outstate Minnesota lost 14 percent of its grocery stores, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development in Mankato.
The most dramatic drops occurred in northern Minnesota, according to the center's count. In northeastern Minnesota, where Aurora sits, about 21 percent of grocery stores shuttered during that time.
"It is hard for small grocers to keep going," said Bruce Schwartau, a program leader with the University of Minnesota Extension. "The competition from, let's say, the Wal-Marts, makes it very difficult."
Zupancich traces the Aurora store's struggles to 2001, when LTV Steel shut down its taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes, erasing about 1,500 jobs.
"Since that happened, it's just been a battle to keep the store profitable," he said.
Last year, Wal-Mart opened in nearby Mountain Iron. Then the minimum wage rose. By the time operations stalled at nearby taconite mines, the Aurora store was in trouble, he said. The company's accountant recommended closing that location, Zupancich said, rather than risk the health of the family company's five other stores — in Ely, Tower, Cook, Babbitt and Silver Bay.
A few of those stores are also struggling, he added. "As a whole, we're surviving."
Nationally, studies have shown that people are driving farther to work, said John Bennett with the University of Minnesota's Center for Community Vitality. "And on your way home, you'll stop at whatever grocery store is on the way."
Bennett is studying how people in the Iron Range cities of Mountain Iron, Tower and Soudan get their food. A recent survey of residents, with results yet to be finalized, suggests that most folks buy their groceries at the Super One in Virginia.
Small grocery stores also face competition from dollar stores and even convenience stores, which are carrying more staples, including fruit, bread and milk.
Experts point out that grocery stores offer the widest assortment of healthful foods, including produce, said Schwartau. But while outstate Minnesota is losing some stores, the situation doesn't look as dire as in other states, where people are trekking dozens of miles to the nearest grocer, he said.
Two grocery stores sit near Aurora, he said. "Fortunately, you can go 5 miles east and you can go 5 miles west."
Armstrong, 51, grew up in Aurora and remembers running to Zup's as a kid. She moved back to town two years ago to care for her mother, who is 94, and made a point to buy her groceries at Zup's. "It was my store," Armstrong said, chuckling. "I'm old-school."
But now, the pair will probably start picking up food on their weekly trips to Wal-Mart, Armstrong said. The big-box stores can't compete with Zup's specialty meats, though, she said. Amstrong would often pick up porketta there, then send it to her son in New Jersey "to give him a little bit of Minnesota."
"I lived in the Twin Cities," she added, "and they don't make porketta the same down there."