– When he bought the cafe on the town’s main drag in 2013, Kevin Nawrocki told everyone he had spent much of his life working in restaurants. What he didn’t tell them is that he had also spent a considerable amount of time breaking into them.

Nawrocki’s cafe, Pure Country Family Dining, was an immediate hit, serving freshly baked bread and cinnamon rolls, homemade pot pies and pasties, a staple from his previous home in Michigan.

Largely because of the cafe’s popularity, Dodge Center’s Main Street was lively again as customers drove in from a nearby factory or other towns for breakfast and lunch. Two other businesses opened after they saw Nawrocki’s investment in the town.

“He was always out greeting people,” said Larry Dobson, publisher of the local Star Herald newspaper. “He baked his own goods, kept his prices very low. He really wanted people to come to town.”

“He’s hyper, very talkative, very friendly,” said Melanie Dobson, Larry’s wife and the paper’s editor. “He was very community minded, just a likable guy.”

So when Nawrocki made the news in September 2015, most customers were shocked.

Some time after 10 p.m. on Sept. 28, Nawrocki broke into the Mill Street Cafe in Brownsdale, about 20 miles south of Dodge Center. Equipped with a crowbar and gloves, he sneaked in through the cafe’s window and stole $435 and a CD player. As he fled the scene, he honked at a bartender in an adjacent business, who called police.

“After this happened he said, ‘I don’t know what got into me,’ ” said Melanie Dobson. “[He said] ‘I was a success story. I was in prison before, I know what it’s like.’ ”

In fact, Nawrocki had an extensive criminal history, mostly of burglarizing businesses, with a specialty in ripping off the exact kind of cafes in which he made a living.

The last time Nawrocki was charged in a burglary was in 1998, when he was caught stuck in a vent hood at Lakes Cafe in Perham, according to the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. He was also linked to a break-in at Debbie’s Kitchen in Fergus Falls, and records show numerous charges and convictions in Michigan for burglary. Before moving to Dodge Center with his wife, a social worker, Nawrocki had been in and out of jail and had used a number of aliases.

At the Annadine coffee shop in Dodge Center last week, patrons were puzzled over why the guy who had resuscitated the town suddenly sabotaged his own life.

Larry Blood has known every owner of the cafe since 1950. “It had never been that good, or that successful,” said Blood. “I give that man credit, he worked seven days a week, 14-hour days. He’d bake bread until 10 at night. He worked as hard as any man I’ve ever met. It breaks my heart.”

As sentencing neared, Nawrocki worried he’d go back to prison. He confided to Blood, “How in the hell did I let five minutes ruin my life?”

It wasn’t really five minutes, however, it was nearly five decades that determined Nawrocki’s fate. Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen said she can’t understand why people who vaguely knew of Nawrocki’s history would expect anything else.

“He had great community support, which makes it all the more baffling that he would do this,” Nelsen said.

Nawrocki said he was drunk and didn’t remember the break-in, but Blood doesn’t believe him. Blood does believe substance abuse eventually got the better of Nawrocki. “When you get that euphoria again, you go back to your old self,” said Blood.

“I believe the man was honestly trying to turn his life around,” he added. “If someone was down and out, you’d get a free meal. He told me that after he got out of prison [the last time], he was a changed man.”

After he was arrested in the Brownsdale burglary, Nawrocki was very open about his pending sentencing, and the people of Dodge Center continued to support him. The cafe was so successful, in fact, that Nawrocki appeared on the Herald’s front page in 2016, just three years after he opened, holding the abstract showing that he’d paid off the building in full. In the same issue, he was praised for running down a couple who had vandalized the laundromat across the street.

Larry Dobson testified in court on Nawrocki’s behalf. “I explained my experiences with him,” said Dobson. “I felt it was a waste to put him in prison and that everyone was behind him here. I said we would keep an eye on him and that he’d have a pretty good chance to go straight.”

Dodge Center Mayor Bill Ketchum also wrote a letter to the judge asking for leniency. “My feeling is that he brought something to the community that was very special, and the community brought something special to him,” said Ketchum. “I tried to impress upon the judge how important such a business is to a small town. He brought a following and a camaraderie you don’t see anymore.”

Last month, a judge sentenced Nawrocki to a minimum of 18 months in prison. The cafe is closed and a sign on the door thanks customers for their patronage.

“He promised me he’ll be back,” said Ketchum. “I think people can’t wait.”

But Nelsen warns that past behavior usually predicts the future.

“People say they’ll welcome him back with open arms,” said Nelsen. “I might suggest some locked doors if they do.”


Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin