“Grandpa” John Zupancich opened the original Zup's store in 1916. The store at that time was on top of the hill in downtown Ely. He lived with his wife Angela and family (Joe, Eddie, Ludwig, Bill, Leonard, Albert, John Jr.) in the upstairs portion of the building and began his business of selling shoes and dry goods.
John was born in Iga, Austria, in 1871. Angela Levstik was born in Ribovic, Austria, in 1881. John came to the United States in 1896 to work in the mines, making his way to Ely. Angela was only in the U.S. for a week when she and John were married on June 22, 1902, by Monsignor Buh in St. Anthony’s Church in Ely.
According to a family history, John bought the Darling Dime Store from Frank Jenko. During the early days, John Sr. sold door-to-door from a suitcase that included such items as combs and brushes. He bartered carpentry work for groceries and soon discovered the farmers in the White Iron Lake area were handy with tools. Wooden barrels could be seen everywhere in the first store. Buying goods in bulk, like sugar, canned goods, paper products, vinegar and rice was common practice. Trains also brought many carloads of grapes for wine and cabbage for sauerkraut.
In the beginning, the store carried no milk or fresh vegetables. Everyone had their own cows and gardens. John first introduced meats in the store during the holiday season. He had built the popularity of the store long before its inception, making sausages for friends and family with the supply increasing year by year.
By 1929 many changes were made. Gone were the colorful livery barns which lined the alley behind the store. Deliveries were made by horse and wagon. The store was fully modernized, and the meat department enlarged for improved sausage making equipment. Due to the popularity of the wide variety of products and the “old world” style sausages, Zup’s store began to incorporate immediate family members into its employ. John was soon joined by his sons, Joseph, Eddie, Ludwig, Bill, Leonard, Albert and John Jr. The store continues with family management by John’s grandsons and great-grandsons.
Mother Angela died at 55 years of age and was not alive to see World War II. Five of her sons served overseas. The armed forces were well represented when Joe and Ludwig joined the Navy. Leonard and Albert joined the Army and John Jr. joined the Marines. Eddie stayed home to help his father with the business and Bill stayed in Ely and worked as a timber cruiser for U.S. Steel.
In 1937, brothers Joe, Eddie, Leonard, Albert, and John Jr. took over the active management of the business. Their father was 67 years old by this time.
The Ely store was remodeled in 1949 to become a self-service market. The Zup’s market was rated as one of the most up to date in northeast Minnesota. This store now had on-the-floor refrigerated and frozen food units. It also had air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. The store opened with two checkout counters that were increased to three as business rapidly grew. The store was modified to handle incoming meats and produce and to allow loading trucks from area resorts which regularly backed in to obtain supplies. In 1958, the business bought the adjacent Mantel building, adding another 24 feet to its facility. At this time, Zup’s went to a cash system and there were no more deliveries. All the owed bills and accounts were slowly paid off by the customers and everyone paid cash for their groceries. The store was affiliated with Fairway Foods, owned by Twin Ports Grocery in Duluth. John Sr. continued in the family grocery business until his death on June 7, 1950.
The Ely store relocated in 1983 on the north side of Sheridan, across the street from the original building. The lot housed a Chevrolet garage and a home. The new store included a deli and with that the beginning of the Zup’s Catering business. Their first catering job was in February 1985. In late 2021, after purchasing Northland Market and the former Shopko building, Zup’s has put in place a home for the future. The expanded footprint and 36,000-square-foot grocery store features groceries, dry goods, a fresh deli, catering service, butcher shop, apparels, a liquor store and pharmacy. Zup’s popular old-world sausage-making capacity will more than double in the new location.
John taught his sons well. They would go on to open stores in Babbitt (taking over the former Piggly Wiggly), Tower, Silver Bay, Aurora and later in Cook.
Zup’s bought the Gornik Family Store in Tower in 1956. This would be their second location. They remodeled the store to the liking of the Ely facility with a sausage room and smoke house. Because of federal inspection laws, the Ely store could not ship their sausage to other stores, so each store had their own sausage factory. In 1991, the store was relocated one block up the street on the location of the former John Zobitz grocery store.
A Silver Bay location was added in 1964. The Aurora site was added in 1973. That store was closed in 2016. A store was added in Babbitt in 1983. That operation also includes mini storage buildings and a shopping center. A fire destroyed the Babbitt store in 2011. Through hard work, determination, and community support, they were able to rebuild a new store in eight months.
Zup’s started its own truck service so supplies could be hauled from Duluth, Superior and other areas, saving shipping costs and insuring that fresh items remained fresh. In 1967, Ed Sr. founded the company trucking business and groceries are hauled to each store from a warehouse facility. Each store gets at least two truckloads of supplies each week, or more depending on the season.
A new store was built in Cook in 1998. That facility also includes a gas station. A fire destroyed the Cook store in 2018 and a new Cook store reopened in 2020.
Zup’s is a vital part of the region’s economy and supplier of essential goods. It provides jobs and tax revenue to the region’s communities. Zup’s stores have a long tradition of hometown pride and family involvement.
Pictures from the Ely-Winton Historical Society.
Historical text taken from articles in the Timberjay and The Ely Echo.