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Classic Coffee Hot Spot: Featuring Diesel Cafe in Somerville

By Kara Lawson

Remember growing up and doing everything with your best friend? You probably talked about going to the same college, buying houses in the same cul-de-sac and maybe even starting a business together. Although best friends Jennifer Park and Tucker Lewis met as adults when they were 18 and 26, it didn't stop them from dreaming about opening a cafe and eventually turning that dream into a reality.

The two met while working at an ice cream shop in Harvard Square, Mass. "It was here that the idea of Diesel was first conceived [...] a land where we would drink coffee all day long, work with people we loved, respect the people with whom we worked and hopefully create a strong community along the way," says Park on the website for Diesel Cafe, which opened three years after the idea formed, in May 1999.


By Catherine Vitagliano.
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The space Diesel occupies at 257 Elm Street was previously an old eyeglass store. Lewis and Park did major renovations to give it an industrial feel. Most of the tables and seats were custom-built by Lewis, who recently revamped the service and back seating areas with reclaimed wood. Other decor includes a gas pump, poured concrete floors, various antiques, pool tables and a big garage door/window that opens when the weather's nice. There's also a black and white photo booth called Omar that was featured on the front page of the Boston Globe in December 2014.

In the past 15 years Diesel has continuously evolved, with Lewis typically spearheading design and construction updates, and Park focusing on operational improvements. The two also opened Bloc 11 Cafe in Union Square (2007) and Forge Baking Company on Somerville Ave (2014). "Whether it's the expansion of Diesel's square footage, the creation of new menu items or the start of composting practices, Diesel has definitely changed a lot," said Rebecca Mitchell, the administrative assistant for all three businesses. "One thing that has stayed consistent though is their openness to change and improvement, while still holding onto their original mission."


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Before her current position, Mitchell worked as a barista at Diesel for seven years. "I've had a lot of jobs in the past and Diesel is the one place that's felt like family," she said. "It's important to Tucker and Jennifer that we feel supported to push ourselves and to explore our individual talents. I wouldn't have expected that I'd learn and grow so much while working at a cafe, but Diesel is so much more than just a cafe."

Along with its sister stores Bloc 11 and Forge Baking Company, Diesel uses green practices, serves direct trade coffee from Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, sources locally as much as possible and is involved with local nonprofits. A sense of community and inclusiveness is fostered by physical accommodations such as gender neutral bathrooms, as well as in-store events, staff who love their jobs and a menu to please most palates.


Coffee tasting event at Diesel with employees Shayna and Brendon.
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"We try to have something available for every size appetite and are happy to accommodate most dietary restrictions and preferences - vegan, gluten free, etc." said Mitchell. In addition to a daily rotation of homemade soups and staples like the Little Piston, Monkey Wrench and Tuck's Turtle, Diesel offers seasonal menu items like hibiscus limeade in the summer and hot cider in the fall and winter. Eventually the pastries and breads made in-house at Forge Baking Company will be available at Diesel and Bloc 11.

So what's next for best friends Park and Lewis? Perhaps a food truck and definitely a continued focus on bettering themselves and their thriving stores. According to Mitchell, "They both like to try out new and innovative approaches and are constantly looking for ways to improve their businesses. Because of that change comes often and is always welcome."


Diesel Cafe, Bloc 11 Cafe and Forge Baking Company Co-owners Tucker Lewis and Jennifer Park at Diesel on May 29, 2014, its 15th anniversary.
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Diesel Cafe
257 Elm Street
Somerville, MA 02144
617.629.8717
www.diesel-cafe.com

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About The Author

Kara is a writer, editor and marketer with a BA and MA in journalism from California...

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