A new grocery store coming to Aurora in less than a year will address a lack of fresh food options in the community.
The Aurora Market will bring fresh produce and meat, including the owners' famous porketta roast, and around 15-20 jobs to the community of about 1,600 residents. The approximately 8,500-square-foot store will be located in the heart of downtown, at 315 N. Main St., in a former union hall.
Aurora, located around 60 miles north of Duluth, has been without a grocery store since early 2016. Zup's Food Market served Aurora for around 40 years, but began struggling in 2001 when LTV Steel shut down its taconite plant near Hoyt Lakes and eliminated 1,400 jobs, according to News Tribune reporting from 2016.
Since then, Aurora residents only had a Dollar General and Lucky Seven General Store for their grocery needs — and no place to buy fresh produce or meat.
Aurora Mayor Doug Gregor said residents' "dreams are being answered."
"Scarcely a day goes by without some one of our citizens asking me: 'When are we going to get a new grocery store?'" Gregor said.
Aurora residents typically head to nearby towns, like Biwabik or Hoyt Lakes, to buy groceries. Having a location in town for these needs is important for residents, he said.
A group of local Iron Rangers are behind the Aurora Market: Tony and Mollie Fragnito, Ben DeNucci and Jim Miklausich.
Aurora Market will be the sister store to Nashwauk Market, and both are owned by East Range Market LLC. The Fragnitos and DeNucci branched into grocery store ownership over two years ago when the former owner of Nashwauk Market retired.
Tony Fragnito was also inspired by his mother, who is in her 70s, to open the Nashwauk market. Fragnito said he didn't want his mother driving dozens of miles to buy her groceries.
Once open, the Aurora Market will share several similarities with the Nashwauk Market. One is Nashwauk's special porketta — a variant of Italian porchetta dish, but made with pork shoulder. After the purchase of the market, Tony Fragnito learned the store's porketta recipe was one they received from his great-aunt.
The Aurora location will also stock items for customers who seek gluten-free, keto-friendly and other foods for special dietary needs, Fragnito said.
"We try to help the customer. If someone wants us to try to bring something in, usually we'll try to do it, if we can get it," he said.
Fragnito and his business partners have experience with the Aurora market already. The Nashwauk store delivers groceries to the community weekly and they sold their porketta this summer at the local farmers market, Fragnito said.
At the farmers markets, he said business was nonstop, even in pouring rain.
"It was fun because of the welcome that we got," Fragnito said.
With plans to employ up to 20 union employees at the store, Fragnito said the store will pay homage to the building's former tenants: union workers.
"There's no place in the world … more union strong than the Iron Range," he said.
Gregor hopes the grocery store helps revitalize downtown. These types of stores typically bring heavier traffic, he said.
"That's exactly what our business community needs," Gregor said.
Looking ahead, Fragnito sees the store addressing a future need if the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine opens nearby.
"If you add something like that, where are those people going to live? Where are those people going to go to shop? … They're going to have to drive to Virginia or Duluth," he said.