The trials and tribulations of the Bakken restaurant biz

By Rebecca Colnar

The owner of Wildcat Pizzeria saw the potential in Williston for a sit-down pizza place, so he and two buddies started the restaurant in 2011.  "It's a family place, so we get locals and kids, and it's a little quieter than some places," says Mellissa Tate, general manager for Wildcat Pizzeria.

The owner of Wildcat Pizzeria saw the potential in Williston for a sit-down pizza place, so he and two buddies started the restaurant in 2011. “It’s a family place, so we get locals and kids, and it’s a little quieter than some places,” says Mellissa Tate, general manager for Wildcat Pizzeria.

Looking for a steak in Williston, a burrito in Sidney or a pizza in Culberston? It might take awhile to satisfy that hunger is the word on the street. Not only is there a shortage of housing but there is a real shortage of restaurants to fill the hungry tummies of the oilfield worker and longtime area residents. Even more than a dearth of dining establishments is the lack of waiters, waitresses, bartenders and cooks.

“I see one of the major problems right now in the food industry in this area is finding enough people to work,” notes Pat Hackley, a Culberston rancher who has lived the area all his life and seen the changes. “A lot of these people are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. People who have worked at eateries here for many years are getting burned out. One reason is there aren’t many choices for dining, and the restaurants are so busy that after awhile, the wait staff just can’t keep up.”

Places offering a grab-and-go meal are on the rise and successful. “A Sinclair station on the west side of Williston took out all of their display cases and put in a to-go counter where you can order freshly made enchiladas and burritos for $6. Those are a meal-in-one. They realized people are hungry, and it’s a good way to go,” notes Boe Gregson, project manager/ water resource specialist for Western Land Services.

"There are long lines at any time of day at the drive-thrus of fast-food restaurants, and the grocery stores are always busy," states Earl Gross, a Williston radio personality who has lived in the area since 1970.

“There are long lines at any time of day at the drive-thrus of fast-food restaurants, and the grocery stores are always busy,” states Earl Gross, a Williston radio personality who has lived in the area since 1970.

Gregson mentions one restaurant has the “Bakken Sandwich” which consists of a pretzel bun, three-quarter-pound beef burger piled high with roast beef, nacho cheese, onions and jalapenos—not for the weak of stomach, but certainly filling enough to keep oilfield workers content for an afternoon.

New ideas rule.  “There are some caterers delivering direct to the oilfield. There are man-camps that are their own communities complete with a chef and laundry service. One company offers a shuttle to Wal-Mart,” he says.

Food trucks pop up in small towns and although the food might be satisfying and cheap, the trucks move about depending on the weather or where the population is located. One day you might be craving a taco from one truck and the next day, it might be gone. And as of Jan. 1st, 2013, Williston banned food trucks, wanting vendors to move into more permanent structures.

Convenience stores/gas stations have jumped into the restaurant biz serving breakfast burritos, cheese burgers and fajitas to go. Fast-food places like McDonald’s always have lines snaking around the building. The biggest problem? Finding help to work long hours.

“You see a lot of Eastern Europeans and service employees from different countries here,” notes Gregson. Ward Koeser, mayor of Williston, explains that in two years the town went from having 14,000 to having 18,000 permanent residents, with 40,000 people living in the city or townships near the city in “man camps” and other temporary housing. “All these people have to eat,” Koeser notes, explaining that one of the problems is there aren’t a bevy of teenagers to work in fast-food. “We have some restaurants that have to close for several hours each day—not because of a lack of customers but because of a lack of staff.”

Owners of the Brickhouse Grille make sure their wait staff and bartenders are knowledgeable about cuisine and beverages, which keeps customers coming back.

Owners of the Brickhouse Grille make sure their wait staff
and bartenders are knowledgeable about cuisine and
beverages, which keeps customers coming back.

Grocery stores are also feeling the pinch of limited employees. “We have three grocery stores—Albertson’s, EconoMart and Wal-Mart. Even WalMart has problems stocking its grocery shelves,” the mayor notes. “Apparently there have been times when they’ve had whole sections bare and it’s not the lack of groceries, but rather the lack of people to stock the shelves.”

Koeser says the town has gotten progressively busier since 2005, and has especially seen an increase in people and activity since 2010. Earl Gross, a Williston radio personality, has lived in the area since 1970 and says the changes over the past few years have been significant.

“I’ve seen many changes in the food industry,” Gross notes. “There are long lines at any time of day at the drive-thrus of fast-food restaurants, and the grocery stores are always busy. If you look in the help-wanted section of the newspaper, everyone is looking for help with service jobs. I was at the Airport Inn where a sign was advertising for a bar manager, waitress and cook.”

Gross explains there are plenty of jobs in the restaurant business, but the difficult part if you’re not pulling in an oilfield salary is affordable housing. “Even if you find housing, expect to pay about $2,000 a month.” That’s an out-of-reach amount for a waiter or waitress.

“Many of the service industry workers are girlfriends or wives of men in the oilpatch,” says Gross. “Their boyfriends or husbands are bringing in good money, so if they decide they don’t like their waitress job, they can quit and maybe look for something else less hectic that suits.”

Mellissa Tate, general manager of Wildcat Pizzeria, says the restaurant was opened in 2011 to serve the boomtown. “The owner had a long history of restaurant management in Massachusetts, and moved to Montana where he owned Sun Mountain. He saw the potential in Williston for a sit-down pizza place, so he and two buddies started Wildcat Pizzeria.”

Tate agrees that help can be hard to find. One of the problems [in trying to keep] employees is insufficient housing. Even if someone moves out here and starts working, finding a place to live is difficult and can be very expensive.

Diners in Dickinson, N.D. can enjoy fine dining in a  building circa 1912.

Diners in Dickinson, N.D. can enjoy fine dining in a building circa 1912.

The pizzeria can be extremely busy, but Tate says the key to having things run smoothly is to have everyone communicating. “It’s controlled chaos,” she laughs. “You try to employ and train people who can handle a big rush. Sometimes it’s hard to keep employees because there are very competitive wages at other places. However, right now we have put together a great staff and our employees love the job.”

“For the first few weeks it opened, there were lines out the door. It’s interesting, though. Unlike other parts of the country where weekends and holidays are the busiest times, we’re slower during those times because so many people are not from the area and go home when they have time off,” Tate explains. “What’s nice about our restaurant is it’s a family place, so we get locals and kids, and it’s a little quieter than some places. The bars, on the other hand, are always packed.” What’s the favorite pizza? “We sell a lot of the ‘meatatarian’ pizzas because guys want to fill their bellies,” Tate notes. “A big-seller is our Wildcat Special with fresh garlic on it. It’s really, really good.”

The Brickhouse located in Dickinson, North Dakota, has been in business for five years. Co-owner Mike Riesinger says that since the oilfield development has accelerated, the restaurant has become busier.

“We hold 96 guests at one time and don’t believe in rushing anyone; we want everyone to enjoy a fine-dining experience, so it is a blessing to run at full capacity,” he explains. “We have added additional staffing, but otherwise we believe consistency and quality are all one needs to gain repeat customers. We have not changed chef Collin Wehner’s (co-owner) belief on [having the] freshest ingredients, hand-cut aged steaks, exotic seafood, and other house favorites which keep diners coming back.”

Riesinger acknowledges one challenge is finding wait staff. “Serving takes a special personality and ability to maintain customer service in a fast-paced environment,” he says. “We have been fortunate to create a ‘BrickHouse family’ of employees which has been here for multiple years.”

The difficulty of keeping chefs is the same with everyone in the service industry—the paycheck. “It is hard to compete with what oilfield jobs pay, so again, it is finding the right person who loves to prepare and cook food. Our restaurant has an added bonus. Chef Wehner is willing to teach his culinary knowledge to his staff. The staff gets a free education, and with this, we have added many more to the “BrickHouse family.”

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What meal do diners enjoy most at the BrickHouse? Hand-cut Angus steaks with a hearty 14-ounce rib-eye are the most popular. “However, don’t be fooled,” Riesinger chuckles. “It’s not just red meat. We sell almost the same amount of live Maine lobster and rack-of lamb as we do steak!”

Diners in Williston might be seeing some improvements. Mayor Koeser explains that several new chain restaurants are opening soon, including Buffalo Wild Wings, Fuddruckers and Famous Dave’s, which might ease the crush of diners at any given time, although getting service employees still might be tricky.

Hackley sees a possible silver lining in the dining cloud of crowds. “The sky’s the limit if you want to open a restaurant. Do something different,” he advises the entrepreneur restaurant owner.

“We have enough pizza restaurants and fast-food type Mexican, but we could use a really good, sit-down Mexican restaurant in Sidney. We could use a sports bar, a place where you could sit down, grab a beer, meet some buddies, have some chicken wings and watch of bunch of sports on different TVs. The opportunities for starting a restaurant are endless.”

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