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WILLISTON, N.D. — Sex sells. So does coffee. Combine the two in a town overflowing with sleep-deprived single men and you’ve got one hell of a winning combination.
So discovered Nyssa Gray, 26, a pink lipstick-loving, bleached blonde from outside Seattle who opened Boomtown Babes Espresso a year ago. Housed in a bubblegum-hued shack in the shadow of this oil boom town’s busy airport, the coffee kiosk isn’t known for its espresso. Boomtown Babes is renowned — or notorious, depending on who you ask — for its skimpily dressed “babe-ristas.”
The men in town have made sure Gray’s business venture is a success.
Nyssa Gray paints Boomtown Babes Espresso, her lingerie-style coffee stand in Williston, North Dakota, an eye-catching bubblegum-pink hue. (Photo: Courtesy of Nyssa Gray)
Over the past several years, thousands of self-described "roughnecks" have flocked to this once-sleepy agricultural town to try and strike it rich in the oil fields. City officials say that there are now four men for every woman living in Williston. But local residents estimate the real ratio is closer to 50:1.
That's thanks to the “man camps,” rows of trailers that house oil workers on the outskirts of town. Though the man-camp residents don’t officially factor into the city’s population, the temporary settlements make Williston one of the most male-dominated parts of the country. North Dakota as a whole is now one of just 10 states in the union where men outnumber women.
Some women view those numbers with trepidation. But Gray sees it as good odds for a lucrative business opportunity.
“Business is awesome,” she said on a recent Wednesday as she surveyed a growing line of trucks filled with men waiting to place their orders. “I mean, you get cute girls in here that actually know how to make coffee…business is so booming.”
Many of the guys working on the oil fields have left their wives and children back home. Others are single, divorced, or —perhaps— soon-to-be. For many, Boomtown Babes apparently fills a void.
“They're just friendly,” said company manager Angela Newman, referring to her typical customers. “Looking for a smiling face in this male-infested town.”
Nyssa Gray proudly shows off her coffee stand, Boomtown Babes Espresso, in Williston, North Dakota. (Photo: Geneva Sands/Fusion)
Not everyone in Williston is thrilled by the hot-pink coffee shack.
“That's not Williston,” said Kellee Black, a local massage therapist, after her team won a neighborhood women’s softball game one recent summer evening. “That's not part of our community.”
Black, 27, and her friend, Tarren Jundt, 24, have played in the softball league for years. The teams are comprised mostly of long-time residents who have seen the oil-fracking boom change Williston faster than a 6-4-3 double play. They remember a not-too-distant past before Boomtown Babes existed, before traffic added hours to cross-town commutes that should take minutes, and before the influx of men prompted them to go jogging in a buddy system, with mace on their keychains.
Just a few years ago, this was a quiet farming community of 12,000. Children roamed through neighbors’ yards unsupervised by adults until the streetlights flicked on at dusk. Everybody knew everybody. Now, the area’s population has ballooned to more than 40,000, and there’s a notably seedy element hanging around town. The softball league feels like an attempt to retain some of that Americana innocence that once defined life in Williston.
Black and Jundt say they don’t go out much anymore, especially not downtown where a busy strip club attracts wealthy oil workers who dole out $1,000 tips for dancers and restaurant prices have skyrocketed along with salaries. While the two local women say they haven’t been seriously harassed, they offer the following advice to other women: Don’t go to Walmart at night by yourself. Check in with people when you do have to travel. Packing pepper spray isn’t a bad idea.
Long-time Williston residents Kellee Black and Tarren Jundt play in a softball league with other local women. (Photo: Geneva Sands/Fusion)
The influx of people, particularly men, has brought bar fights and drug arrests, prostitution and domestic violence. Boomtown Babes was robbed at knifepoint four months after opening, and local papers tell tales of gang activity and meth labs. The FBI recently posted more agents in the area and domestic violence crisis centers in the state say they’re seeing more clients than ever.
Still, the general consensus among the women interviewed by Fusion is that most guys are respectful and Williston is still safe… if you avoid the dangerous spots. And for many, the economic benefits that have come with the crush of people are more than welcome.
Boomtown Babes Espresso opened an outpost in Tioga, North Dakota, in mid-August. Owner Nyssa Gray has plans to expand further in the near future. (Photo: Courtesy of Nyssa Gray)
Gray says North Dakota is now her home, and she's already planning to expand Boomtown Babes across the state. Judging by the way things are going in the fracking industry — oil-drilling boom could go on for another 15 - 20 years— her client base will likely continue to grow.
And as long as the oil and cash keep flowing, the Boomtown Babes will make sure the coffee does too.
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Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.