Off Campus

Fueled by Somerville

Diesel Café, understated yet vibrant, sits in the heart of Davis Square. A random passerby may never know that Diesel is more than a coffee shop: it’s a lifestyle. It is a café tailor-made for the Somerville community. The combination of its physical layout—high ceilings, vast spaces, and communal tables—along with its quirky and warm staff, makes Diesel feel open and welcoming even to a one-time customer simply in search of a cup of coffee one morning. Its all-inclusive nature exists by no coincidence or stroke of luck; co-owners Tucker Lewis and Jennifer Park created the café with this vision.

Dubbed “the bedrock of intersecting cultures and progressive eating” by food and culture blog DigBoston, Diesel was a labor of love for the two owners. The café opened 15 years ago after Lewis and Park—only in their twenties at the time—struggled for three years to find landlords and banks to take them seriously. Yet the two entrepreneurs remained confident in their vision. Partners at the time of Diesel’s opening, Lewis and Park supposed that a queer community and clientele would seek out the café. Their confidence was well founded; more than a decade later, DigBoston now states that the café is “a hotspot for local queers.” According to the owners, creating this environment was relatively straightforward. As Park said, “You can’t help but foster a queer community if the establishment is queer owned.”

Yet Lewis said it was not the primary goal for Diesel to become a queer space. “Honestly, I think what we want to do first and foremost is create something that is open to everyone,” she said. “When we first opened, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, is it a gay café?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that means.’ A café isn’t gay; it’s just a café. We weren’t deliberately or explicitly trying to create that environment, but we were trying to make it so everyone felt good. We certainly can’t hide or deny who we are and we are a part of that community. Obviously, there is a large gay, trans, queer community here and we’re psyched about it.”

The existence of such a safe space has had a major impact on the surrounding community. Steve Buckley, a self-proclaimed 7 day a week patron of Diesel, used it as the space in which he publically came out. Buckley is a sports columnist with the Boston Herald and a reporter for Comcast Sports New England. He began frequenting Diesel to unwind and escape from his home office. When he came out publically in 2011, he directed anyone in the media who wanted to interview him on the topic to meet him at Diesel. “I established office hours at one of the booths here and did interviews for three hours,” he said. “I used Diesel as my coming out platform.”

What Buckley found most comfortable about the café was the staff. “The employees bestow upon me a certain hipness that I probably don’t deserve,” he admitted with a smile. “They don’t treat me like I’m a 58 year-old townie, and they make me feel good about myself.”

Indeed, Lewis and Park emphasized the importance of their staff in extending Diesel’s good vibes to all comers. “All of our cafés foster a welcoming and open atmosphere for anyone. That’s kind of a requirement for working here: you have to be open-minded, you have to be a thoughtful person. We initially started focusing on a really close-knit community of staff, which inevitably creates a community for customers,” Park said.

In addition to fostering a welcoming attitude towards customers, Park and Lewis have also emphasized a strong sense of community within the staff itself. Both owners described the employees as a family. Employees of Diesel have “Diesel birthdays” that commemorate their first day of work at the shop. It is clear that Diesel’s ownership cares about the staff, and, in turn, the staff cares about Diesel.

A member of the Diesel family, Tim Wynn, has been a barista at Diesel for two and a half years. He first entered Diesel on a date and kept returning for more. At Diesel, he has met best friends, roommates, and girlfriends—as customers and co-workers alike. “My entire social circle has grown leaps and bounds because of working here,” he said. “It’s just a safe space where people are really comfortable and friendly. The ownership and the people here really set that tone.”

Lewis and Park set out to create an establishment that is green and environmentally progressive as well as inclusive. It’s safe to say that this goal, too, was realized: in 2012, Diesel won Green Business of the Year from the Somerville Chamber of Commerce. All items on the Diesel menu use completely compostable ingredients, and the owners work with local farmers during summer and use dairy products from Western Massachusetts.

The combination of inclusiveness and quality has produced incredible results for the café. Diesel was awarded the “Best Brew in Boston” in the Krups Best Brew Awards 2014, and Lewis and Park have expanded their operations to two new cafés. Bloc 11, their second café, opened eight years ago in Union Square, and Forge Baking Company is coming soon to Somerville. Consistent with their locally grown philosophy, the owners plan on growing their own herbs at Forge.

In expanding their business, however, Lewis and Park do not plan on replicating Diesel. According to the owners, each café has a unique personality, aesthetic, team of employees, and customer base. As Lewis explained, “Diesel is just Diesel, you’re not going to duplicate that. It would be like naming your second kid the same name as your first kid; it’s just kind of strange, unless you’re George Foreman.”

And perhaps that’s the most important feature of Diesel—the fact that it was tailor-made for the Somerville community. Before its opening in 1999, this kind of space did not exist for the Somerville population. Now, it brings unlikely segments of the Somerville community together through food, drink, atmosphere, and inclusivity. Diesel brings a piece of novelty, of a past and long gone sense of community and sentimentality to a street with so many faceless, cookie-cutter brands: Starbucks, Chipoltle, and Pinkberry, to name a few. A love of and commitment to its community has fostered the character of the café. Park and Lewis created Diesel Café with the needs of Somerville in mind and, judging by its success and growth, Somerville is grateful for their perseverance and realized vision.

See our video interview with the founders, staff, and customers of Diesel Cafe.

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