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Sushi, craft beer and $5 coffee come to North Dakota

Sarah Chandler, Special to CNBC.com
Friday, 15 Nov 2013 | 9:00 AM ET
Patrons dance to live music in a bar in Williston, North Dakota.
Getty Images
Patrons dance to live music in a bar in Williston, North Dakota.

It's Friday evening in Williston, N.D., and Basil Restaurant is buzzing with diners sipping sake bombs and ordering up Flaming Tiger rolls.

After dinner, customers can head over to the Williston Brewing Company and sample 1280 Ale, one of 40 beers on tap. With 80 more varieties available by the bottle, the locally owned bar and restaurant claims to offer North Dakota's largest beer selection.

A year ago this kind of night out simply did not exist in Williston. Oil was first discovered in North Dakota's Bakken region in 1951, but it took more than 60 years for sushi and craft beer to arrive.

In just the last two months both of these popular new establishments have set up shop in North Dakota's most notorious boomtown, unofficial headquarters of the state's oil and gas fracking boom. Until recently, the idea that the town could support a sushi restaurant at all would have struck some residents as far-fetched.

"People said no one will eat sushi," said Lee Lusht, interim executive director of the Williston Chamber of Commerce. "Now it's packed. I can't get in."

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Two years ago, when Lusht first moved to Williston from Pennsylvania, she lived in her friend's basement closet for three months out of necessity. There were simply no hotel rooms available.

Since then, living in Williston has been "like remodeling your kitchen while you're cooking in it," Lusht said. "You're doing dishes in the bathtub and making dinner on a hotplate, but when it's all said and done, it's going to be a fabulous kitchen." Now, Lusht said, Williston "has reached a point where it can manage its growth," and that growth includes some hallmarks of big-city consumer gluttony.

"People said no one will eat sushi. Now it's packed. I can't get in." -Lee Lusht, Interim executive director of the Williston Chamber of Commerce

Gush life
Some new upstarts, such as Boomtown Babes—a coffee shop that opened in August—have found a way to embrace the Bakken region's Wild West reputation while hitching it to big-city flavors. The dress code? Think Hooters: scantily clad baristas wearing bikini tops and dishing out flirtatious attitude. However, the cost of a latte has some locals balking. At more than $5, it's pricier than a grande latte at a Manhattan Starbucks.

Many new businesses are slated to open in town, some with more of a straightforward "good ol' American" consumer orientation: Midwestern franchise Famous Dave's Barbecue plans to begin serving baby back ribs to Williston locals by the end of the year.

The most recent census figures indicate that Williston's rapidly growing population has exceeded 18,500. Yet that number may be deceptively low: The Williston Chamber of Commerce estimates that area businesses currently serve upward of 40,000 people a day.

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Simon Chan, executive chef of Basil Restaurant, relocated from Wyoming with his wife, Jenny Ho, to open up their sushi bar and Asian fusion bistro. So far business has been strong. The one problem? Finding an available pediatrician when their children were sick. "They're all booked up, so you have to go to an emergency room or a walk-in clinic," Simon explained.

Yet local residents such as Lindsey Lane, 30, a single mother who relocated to Williston from Montana, remain optimistic about Williston's future, including the maternal and pediatric care she has received in the Williston health-care system. "I've been to 43 states," Lane noted. "Everyday life here is just like everywhere else."

North Dakota needs housing, Keystone Pipeline
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) says the boom in North Dakota continues and that she's pushing for single-family housing. The Keystone Pipeline will get built, she says.

(Read more: End of suburbia may be nearly upon us: Sam Zell)

Next Olympic host?
Though the oil boom continues to lure thousands of temporary workers to this once sleepy region, there are signs that Williston is doing its best to shed its modern-day Gold Rush image. While the town may still be better known for man camps and strip clubs than sashimi and espresso, civic leaders suggest that deep investment in infrastructure, local businesses and community resources are finally paying off. Such efforts, local officials say, are key for improving the area's quality of life––and for retaining long-term residents.

No place is that push toward quality of life more evident than at the Williston Parks and Recreation District, where plans are in full swing to open a $76 million recreation center in March 2014. The Williston Area Recreation Center (A.R.C.), a 254,000-square-foot building, will sport a 50-meter Olympic-size swimming pool, a 200-meter competition track and four indoor tennis courts, among other things.

Darin Krueger, executive director of the Williston Parks and Recreation District, said the A.R.C. is being financed by a 1-cent sales tax that voters approved on a 20-year bond. While half of the proceeds from the sales tax goes to the Parks and Recreation District, half goes to the building itself. Previously, the Parks District was financed by property taxes. "We were a poor district," Krueger said. "There was no way to fix anything."

In 2006 Krueger moved to Williston from Denver, where he worked for the Denver Broncos and a suburban park district. "My friends said I was crazy," Krueger recalled. "They said, 'You're moving where? Why?'"

He remains confident that the state-of-the-art facilities will attract families and professionals in key industries––such as health care, education and law enforcement––to town. "We're trying to make sure that doctors, teachers and police officers want to move here," Krueger said. "It's cold for six months out of the year here. We need something for people to do inside."

The expanding population of Williston will have the opportunity to work off the pounds piled on at Basil's, or neglect the gym while downing more sake bombs to keep warm through the winter.

By Sarah Chandler, Special to CNBC.com

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