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MINTO -- The only places in Minto to get a cup of coffee are the Cenex gas station and Beaver’s Cafe. On any given morning, it seems that most choose the cafe over the gas station.

They stroll into Beaver’s Cafe shortly after the sun’s rays start to reach the fields that surround the town and its 600 residents.

They sit at a large, round table and a waitress comes out from the kitchen to pour them each a cup of coffee.

“If you don’t have a cafe, you don’t have a town,” said owner of the cafe, Steve “Beaver” Novak. “A cafe draws people into town.”

Cafes in rural towns are a vital part of the culture. They provide a place to catch up on the town gossip. A place to meet. And simply, a place to get some warm food on frosty North Dakota mornings.

But, because some towns these cafes are in are so small, some with populations in the double digits, they can be hard to maintain.

It is also often difficult to find good, reliable help.

The Hillsboro Cafe in Hillsboro was closed for a number of years before Kate and Derek Ehnert reopened it.

Although the cafe is open limited hours, the husband and wife usually end up putting over 80 hours into the cafe each week because they have a hard time finding good workers.

A place to gather

Dennis Slominski, from nearby Warsaw, N.D., starts just about every morning at Beaver’s.

“This is a good meeting spot,” Slominski said. “We get to ... socialize a little bit.”

Larry Freier from Minto agreed.

“This cafe is good for the community,” Freier said.

He said that owner of the cafe, Novak, is also good for the community.

“Every fundraiser, benefit, he’s there supporting the community,” Freier said.

Novak also opens up the cafe for formal meetings.

“This is a central meeting place for people at least 10 miles out of town,” Freier said.

Without a cafe, the town goes downhill quick, Slominski said. Looking at a map of northeastern North Dakota, signs of a cafe or restaurant in many small towns are slim.

About 30 minutes southwest from Beaver’s Cafe is the Dam Cafe in Fordville, N.D.

Before most have started stirring in their beds, Rene Kirby is opening up the cafe at 4:30 a.m.

She has owned the cafe, and the bar next to it, since 2011.

The only other place in town to get a bite, Kirby said, is the American Legion down the street.

Having a cafe is especially important for a small town, Kirby said, because a cafe “keeps a town alive.”

“It’s also good for the older folks who don’t have family and they can get together with people in town,” Kirby said.

The Dam Cafe is known for its wing night, which happens weekly on Wednesdays.

Kirby and Shelly Poitra, who Kirby calls her “rock,” said that people from all over come to Fordville for their wings. Some even as far as Minneapolis.

“I want this to be a place in the middle of nowhere that people can come to get great food,” Kirby said.

And her customers say that it is great food.

“(Kirby) makes the best bacon in the whole state of North Dakota,” one said.

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Keeping business local

One regular from Lankin, N.D., walks into the cafe just after 9:30.

Kirby greets him, and without hesitation darts into the kitchen to get his breakfast started.

“You are going to eat, aren’t you, Timmy?” Kirby called from the kitchen, having not heard him order.

It’s tough to stay in business in a small town, Novak said, because a lot of people work out of town.

Like the customer from Lankin bringing his business to the Dam Cafe in Fordville, many in Minto eat elsewhere because they don’t work where they live.

While this makes running a business more difficult, this can also help business, by bringing out-of-towners in.

Of those gathered at the Minto cafe in October, many come from at least 10 miles away, even one from Oslo, Minn., 17 miles away. The Dam Cafe draws regulars from all over the northeastern part of the state, too.

Cafes in Lankin and Park River have closed, forcing residents who want a cafe to go out of town.

Even the cafe in Minto has changed hands almost 20 times in the past 30 years, Novak said.

Ultimately, communities in rural areas rally around small town cafes because residents enjoy having a place to gather. That’s why, Novak said, even though the cafe in Minto changed hands frequently, it has survived.

And if the cafe leaves, there’s simply “no good place to eat,” Freier said.

A cafe is the perfect meeting place to make plans, or just sit and take a load off, Kirby said.

“The cafe is a focus spot in town,” Kirby said.

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