Sneed: A taste of Chicago in North Dakota oil fields
By Michael Sneed July 12, 2013 11:32PM
Updated: August 15, 2013 6:52AM
WATFORD CITY, N.D.. . . The boomtown boys are dispensing a taste of Chicago in this state hit by a jackpot of oil.
“We’re dishing out the best eats in the Bakken oil field,” chirped former Chicago cop Joe Hackett, who, along with his Mt. Greenwood buddy Steve Aramburu, pulled up stakes two years ago to cash in on the Dakota shale oil mother lode.
The plucky duo, who ditched their jobs and bought a shiny mustard-and-ketchup-colored food truck, hit the money trail west to cash in on the hunger of truckers and oil workers making six-figure salaries on labor-intensive jobs.
Since the Dakota shale fields erupted into Boomtown, USA, makeshift taco stands, fast food joints, and workforce housing have sprouted like tumbleweeds along the dusty highways snaking from Williston to Watford City, N.D.
“Truckers and oil workers need to eat,” said Hackett, “But being trucker-friendly in big rigs isn’t easy. So we made it easy.”
So they planted their “Chicago’s Finest” emblazoned food truck near the diesel fuel pumps crawling with trucks — and dished out Chicago style grub; Vienna beef hot dogs; polish sausage a la Maxwell street; gyros off the spit, and Eli’s Cheesecake.
“We’ve had guys pull up in their motorcycles and make a deep bow to us for serving them a little of the neighborhood,” he added.
“The only reason we serve ‘chips, no fries’ like Billy Goat’s is because it gets so damn hot in our food truck; 125 degrees inside. I lost 40 pounds in sweat last year,” said Hackett.
The men are amongst thousands of entrepreneurs feeding out of a shale trough where meals can make you millions.
They rent space for their food truck at the Diesel fuel station from another Chicagoan — and rent old FEMA trailers for housing. Hackett and Aramburu, who work in shifts from 10 a.m. to midnight, spend $1,700 a month on rent for their house trailer.
“There was big money to be made and a chance to be our own boss,” said Hackett. “We work here from April to November, and then we head to the oil fields in Texas the rest of the year.”
Dean Aberle, who owns a popular family-style restaurant in Minot, N.D., inherited a modest business from his grandparents that is booming from feeding frackers cracking the earth’s surface to extract natural gas.
“We’ve expanded big time, and in one week recently we catered to two oil outfits 17 times. We take them meatballs, spaghetti, mashed potatoes in pots and they bring them back to fill them up again.
“We’re told this could go on for the next 12-15 years,” Aberle said.
Amidst the dust and the heat, the Bakken shale area has also become the land of men.
During a 30-minute period on a recent visit to the only McDonald’s in the nearby city of Williston, an eyesore of work force housing, I spotted only one female occupant.
“It’s very awkward,” said Hackett, who is not married. “All the women are taken and when you do see a woman, everyone is hounding them. They must feel like pieces of meat up here. I heard the ratio is 70-to-1, men to women.
“It’s disappointing, it’s hard, you’d like to go out and socialize, there’s no one to socialize with. It’s one of the things that is frustrating, after you work hard you’d like to go to a bar and talk to a girl. You might see one girl a week. As a former cop, you feel protective. But then, I’ve learned to move away from the sound of bullets.”
Platoons of trucks now pound the Dakota prairie between Williston and Watford City; towns that were eye blinks that have now become eyesores. Vistas choked with dust and jutting with food shacks and temporary housing like angry teeth waiting to be pulled. I had to drive 132 miles one night to get a hotel room in this busy landscape.
“Sometimes you can hardly see anything. . . and then there is the incessant blow of the prairie wind,” said Hackett. “They tease us that we are from the Windy City. . . but there is no wind to compare with the wind here. It never stops.”
The Bakken shale range borders the beauty of the Dakota badlands: Immense wetlands, fields where an antelope sighting is not rare, big sky, and buildings no taller than a silo.
Many Dakotans fear the discovery of the new shale load will change the culture of North Dakota. “If you don’t own a farm where the shale exists, who is the oil benefitting?” said Joann Jensen, who lives in Minot. “Prices are up. Retired people have been hit hard.”
Then she added: “But if you’ve got meals to sell, well, that can be a different story.”
Sneedlings. . .
I spy: Chicago financial whiz Mellody Hobson and new “Star Wars” hubby George Lucas acting like the hoi polloi, enjoying lunch on the RL patio Friday . . . Congratulations to nurse Lisa Naftzger-Kang of Wilmette, who was named a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserves at a ceremony last Monday in Washington, D.C. Her husband, Joe, and daughters, Kelly and Jenny, are not only over the moon, but the girls pinned the military epaulets on their mother. . . Saturday’s birthdays: Harrison Ford, 71; Sir Patrick Stewart, 73, and Ken Jeong, 44. . . Sunday’s birthdays: Jane Lynch (left), 53; Matthew Fox, 47, and Harry Dean Stanton, 87.