In May 1999, Diesel Cafe opened its doors at 8 a.m. to a line of people. The founders were overwhelmed by the crowds that streamed through the shop—co-owner Tucker Lewis kept having to send her parents out to restock ingredients. By 3 p.m., they ran out of coffee.
They thought they’d make it a year, maybe two. But the Diesel dream turned into a two-decade reality.
The founders worked every day initially, from opening to closing (which used to be 1 a.m.). What kept Lewis enamored with the shop wasn’t the coffee—that was co-founder Jennifer Park’s area, and Lewis admits it wasn’t until Diesel was four years old that she managed to drink a full cup. Rather, Lewis’s vision for Diesel was focused around community.
“We wanted to create a really positive, unique experience for staff, where they felt really supported and empowered, but also for customers, where you walk in and it’s not for one type of person,” Lewis says while sitting in a booth near the front of the shop. “If you look around, it’s a pretty diverse crowd, both age-wise and everything else.”
Lewis and Park met while working at an ice cream shop in Harvard Square, but they longed for the freedom of running their own place and everything that entailed, like not having to get dressed up for work or write a resume. A friend came up with the name “Diesel,” and the aesthetic grew from there: Lewis brought her old motorcycle in, they pulled in the gas pump, they crafted a menu full of “kitschy” names.
“Before we opened Diesel, I tried on a couple different professions, I was thinking I was maybe going to be an auto mechanic, so I did some interning in that, and then I was going to go into public health for a while, and everything I tried on was just kind of devoid of the energy that I found working behind the counter,” Lewis says. “I didn’t think that I would have a job in food service, but I love food service. I’ve always loved interacting with the customers, I’ve always loved the interactions behind the counter.”
The owners have been told throughout the years that Diesel has become a special place for many people. Some met their spouses at the shop (including Lewis); others penned books in its booths; others simply found a sense of community there.
So when it came time to celebrate 20 years, the Diesel team decided to gather those stories. They put out a call for accounts of “Diesel-inspired loves, friendships, accomplishments, and memories,” and will publish submissions online.
“I’m an extremely nostalgic person,” Lewis says. “I feel so grateful and so appreciative to still be here, and [this project is] kind of honoring that. But also, one of my favorite things that I hear from people when they know that I own Diesel, is, ‘Oh my god, Diesel, I love Diesel, I met my husband at Diesel,’ ‘I met my wife at Diesel,’ ‘Diesel saved my life’—I’ve heard that many times, because they found a community or a home. And those things are super meaningful to me.”
Lewis says about 25 stories have been sent in so far. A theme that courses among several of them, she says, is that Diesel has been a safe community for many young LGBTQ people, particularly in its early years.
“We always sit here and wonder, ‘What are we doing, we’re just selling things and people are buying them and there’s this consumer element to it’—you can start to question, existentially, ‘What are we doing?’ But it’s those stories that are kind of the reason that it all makes sense for us. We’ve created this space that isn’t just a coffee shop, there’s so much more to it,” she explains.
In addition to the love stories project, Diesel will celebrate its anniversary with a staff prom that many old employees are coming back to Somerville for, according to Lewis.
Anyone who’s interested in submitting a Diesel story can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.