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Saturday: Dorset restaurants go up in flames

Dorset House engulfed in flames. (Sarah Smith /Enterprise)1 / 3
Laura and Rick Kempnich (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 3
This photo was submitted by a firefighter.3 / 3

BY Sarah smith and Jean Ruzicka


Two longtime institutions burned nearly 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.

Rick and his father, Mike Kempnich, opened the restaurant in 1985 as Compadres. The name was changed a few years later due to threatened legal action. Compañeros was born, although old-time customers still call it Compadres.

The Omaha family had been coming to the area during the summers, Rick working at area restaurants.

“I bought this on a whim,” Mike said of the purchase the building, which had been vacant for two years. Through the years, parts of the structure had served as a house, a post office, a fish and cheese shop and other enterprises. He purchased the booths from a Mexican restaurant in Omaha that had closed.

Mike’s brother had teased him, “What’s a German doing opening a Mexican restaurant in a Swedish community?”

“You can shoot a cannon down this street and not hurt anyone,” Mike’s Omaha buddies had observed of the hamlet, arriving in the spring of 1984 after a brutal snowstorm. At the time it was home to the Dorset House, the General Store and Dorset Café.

“Mike and Rick worked so hard to get it going,” Laura recalled. Law enforcement officer Bob Potter had been in before the restaurant’s opening, incredulous at what remained to be done.

“You’re kidding. Two weeks?” he asked.

They joked, “If I doesn’t go over we can sit at the bar and play cards.”

But lethargy was not in the cards. In the succeeding years, throngs have descended on the village for a sample of south of the border fare.

“It’s been lots of fun,” said Mike, now retired. “I was the go-fer,” he said of running errands. “Rick and Laura made it what it is.” His Omaha cronies’ old joke of moving up to Minnesota, doing a few morning chores and then spending the day fishing didn’t materialize, he said.

The restaurants had just celebrated their 29th year in business and were looking forward to their 30th, Rick said. The Kempnichs had purchased the old-fashioned soda fountain, Dorset House, in 1995, from Norbert Kenney, who trained much of the young staff.

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.” It is a sampling of everything the town has to offer and is a festival that was the brainchild of “Norb” Kenney. He passed away this past spring.

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

The restaurants have enjoyed such a fanatic following that customers lined the wooden boardwalk waiting for the doors to open, especially on weekends.

Customers patiently waited for more than an hour to get into Compañeros each Friday and Saturday nights.

Thursday night firefighters re-visited the scene with thermal imaging cameras, trying to detect and extinguish hot spots.

“There’s just so much stuff there that unless we dig it all out of there it will stay hot,” Hoffman said Friday morning. “There’s still steam rising in Dorset and we’re monitoring it.”

Sarah Smith

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

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