Jennifer Park likes to call Diesel Café “a foolish story with a happy ending.”
Park and co-owner Tucker Lewis were just 21 and 29 years old, respectively, when they opened the cafe in Somerville’s Davis Square in 1999, and their inexperience showed: The lease on the large storefront on Elm Street cost more than they expected to earn. Inside, much of the equipment had been purchased with personal credit cards.
“We weren’t in a position to go to a bank and ask for a lot of money,” Park explained. “So you take a huge risk and hope it works out.”
Today, those early gambles seem more like fate. Diesel Café is the beating heart of Davis Square, the faces of its many customers a veritable mural of Somerville’s diversity. It’s the homey joint where neighbors run into each other, the landmark meeting spot, a go-to date spot for students, an office for the work-from-home set — in short, a defining business of Somerville’s signature neighborhood.
The company has since opened two other outlets in Somerville and employs 90 workers. One of the stores, Forge Baking Company, will expand this fall and begin making ice cream. That’s a long-delayed fulfillment of the pair’s original plan to open an ice cream shop. (They met working at the former Herrell’s Ice Cream in Harvard Square.)
Park credits Diesel’s success to its emphasis on service and community in an era when social connections are often digital commodities, fleeting and unsatisfying.
“Our interactions are getting more and more limited. It’s like you’re witnessing and observing something instead of actually participating,” she said. “As small as it is, having the opportunity to serve someone in a really human, nice way makes such a difference. People want to feel like there’s one place where everyone comes together, and Diesel certainly fulfills that role.”
Along with a handful of nearby fixtures such as Redbones Barbecue, Diesel Café has been a witness to — and a catalyst of — the transformation of Davis Square into a culinary hot spot.
“We’ve seen a lot of businesses come and go in the 17 years we’ve been open,” Park said. “We had no idea we would last so long. Now we’re the place where people come in with their kids and say,
‘I met my wife or my husband or my partner here.’ ”