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UPDATED FRIDAY: Dorset restaurants go up in flames

Firefighters try to save Compañeros after the Dorset House pizzeria next door burned to the ground. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 3
Only a shell remained of the Mexican restaurant. ( Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 3
Lightning can be seen in the background while firefighters battle the fire. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

By Sarah Smith and Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise reporters

Two longtime institutions burned to the ground in Dorset Thursday morning during a violent thunderstorm.

Compañeros and Dorset House Restaurant burned while their owners sat across the street fighting back tears and watching the six fire departments fight valiantly to try to save the 100-year-old wooden structures.

The beloved establishments were a total loss.

“They are under investigation,” said Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman, refusing speculation that lightning strikes caused the fire.

“They’re wrong,” he said of the media venturing opinions as to the cause.

Fire marshal Toby McLain said coordinates of the lightning from the storm will be studied.

“I do not believe he would be able to come to a solid conclusion,” Hoffman said of the cause and the fire marshal’s investigation.

The fire began around 4:15 a.m. during the severe thunderstorm. There were no injuries in the unoccupied buildings.

Owners Rick and Laura Kempnich huddled across the street on a bench watching the buildings go one-by-one. Through the years, they had added on six times. The two restaurants shared a common wall.

“We’re just lost,” said a tearful Laura. “We don’t know what to do.”

The Kempnichs were notified of the fire when employee Tina Ridlon called. Husband and Assistant Park Rapids Fire Chief Mike Ridlon had received the page.

The stores to the south of Dorset House, owned by Kempnichs and leased by Lundrigan’s owner Nancy Freeman, had smoke damage, with an exterior wall charred.

 The restaurants had just celebrated their 29th year in business and were looking forward to their 30th, Rick said.

The restaurants were open Labor Day but closed Tuesday and Wednesday. They were starting their “winter hours” which relegated them to a four-day weeks.

Thursday morning, firefighters called for every available tanker truck, but water was still a problem. Tankers filled up on Little Sand Lake near Zorbaz restaurant, almost two miles away.

Firefighters from Park Rapids, Nevis, Menahga, Akeley, Carsonville and Wolf Lake responded.

The tiny burg has jokingly billed itself as the “Restaurant Capital of the World” and every August throws a huge food fest that attracts thousands. It’s called “Taste of Dorset.”

Thursday, Rick Kempnich said they have made no decision on rebuilding.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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