AURORA - Gene Palm's shopping cart was piled high.
It took Palm about 15 minutes to load the layers of canned goods, laundry detergent, facial tissues and Cool Whip into his cart at Zup's Food Market in Aurora during the grocery store's clearance sale on Monday. And it took about two hours to get through the checkout line, as dozens of other shoppers with similarly loaded carts came to say goodbye to the only grocery store in town - and take home some bargains.
Shoppers flooded into Zup's (the local pronunciation rhymes with "soups") on Monday as the Zupancich family that owns the local chain prepares to close the 40-year-old store. Plans are to close the doors on Wednesday after two days of half-off-of-everything sales.
"It feels like we failed, leaving the town without a grocery store," said Jim Zupancich, one of nine co-owners of the grocery stores. "It's a burden on the people who live in the community."
Locals like Palm were saddened by the store's closing.
"I'm here many times a week," Palm said. The towns on either side of Aurora both still have grocery stores, but the 5-mile drive to Hoyt Lakes or Biwabik will be inconvenient, Palm said.
And it will be an even farther drive to locate some of Zup's specialty products, like their homemade sauerkraut and popular potato sausage, blood sausage, and other meat products. The Zupancich family still owns and operates five other grocery stores on the eastern end of the Iron Range and in Silver Bay. Their flagship store in Ely will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year.
"We make a humble living," Jim Zupancich said. "We have a large family, and several stores we all work with, but it's so competitive."
Nationally, the grocery shopping experience has been "highly fragmented," according to a 2011 study of the industry by the U.S. Treasury Department, with shoppers visiting an average of five different kinds of stores to buy their groceries. That includes traditional supermarkets, big-box retail stores, convenience stores, natural food stores and online grocery delivery services. Zupancich said the arrival of a full grocery line at the Wal-Mart store in Mountain Iron that opened in 2014, combined with the prevalence of grocery items at local convenience stores, has hurt the Zup's locations.
"Every time they sell a pizza or a pack of toilet paper, that's one less that you sell," Zupancich said. "It makes you more competitive, but you're fighting to get as many sales as you can."
Aurora was once home to three grocery stores including Zup's, said Mayor Mary Hess. She lives just half a block away from Zup's and said she shops there just about every day.
"I will be lost without that store," Hess said. Not only did she shop for her own groceries, but Hess turned to Zup's to supply meat and other ingredients for a number of fundraising dinners throughout the year. She might need 90 pounds of meat for a Swiss steak dinner, or 70 pounds of hamburger for an Italian buffet, and she always bought from Zup's.
A trip to Zup's was also part of the social fabric of the community, said shoppers Judy Holtz and Jan Brown. Both were waiting to check out full carts on Monday.
"When you come in to shop, you end up visiting," Brown said.
"It's so sad to think this is the last time I will be in here," said Holtz, who has shopped at the Zup's store several times a month ever since it opened, though she lives closer to Biwabik.
Gwen Keskitalo, who has owned Megan's Family Restaurant in Aurora for 23 years, is another frequent local shopper. She had to drive just a few blocks to Zup's to pick up an odd item or two needed at the restaurant.
"You need milk, you need powdered sugar, you need something for our specials, just random things," Keskitalo said. Losing the store has been a hot topic among her customers.
"There are a lot of people talking about it," Keskitalo said. "People are upset, but what do you do? Nowadays, people are comparing prices for everything."
Last summer, Aurora lost another key retail option when the Aurora Drug & Variety store closed. Two dollar stores have recently opened, but the town's main streets are pockmarked with vacant storefronts. Aurora's commercial tax base has actually grown a bit in the past few years, from $5.2 million in 2012 to $5.7 million in 2014. That's due to several health-care business expansions and the new dollar stores, said Britt See-Benes, Aurora's city administrator. But losing the drugstore and grocery store will mean a setback for the city's tax base.
Zupancich said the Aurora Zup's really started to struggle when LTV Steel shut down its taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes in 2001, eliminating 1,400 jobs.
"In a small community, it's hard to survive as a grocery store," Zupancich said. He said the local customers and employees have been wonderful to work with, and the Zupancich family agonized over the decision to close the store.
Hess said she is worried about the large elderly population in town, many of whom don't like to drive long distances. Without a drug store or a grocery store left in Aurora, she's not sure what some of them will do. Hess is holding out hope that the long-planned PolyMet copper-nickel mining project will materialize, with its promise of construction, mining and spinoff jobs.
Some of the other Zup's stores are doing "OK," Zupancich said, "and some are struggling. I think our economy needs to change up here, it needs to get more diversified."