Diesel Cafe turns 20 in May.
In September, my career in coffee will also turn that big 2-0. Being a fan of dates and anniversaries, holidays and the such, this isn’t really much of a revelation or surprise for me. It’s been on the brain for quite a while now, especially the past year. It feels easy to go back and remember upon, because it just doesn’t feel like all that long ago. Certainly not two entire decades. Some jobs come and go without fanfare or fuss, but my time at Diesel (7 & a half years- and time well spent, I might add) left an impressive impression.
I first caught wind of what I thought was going to be “this great new lesbian bar!” from something I gleaned in either Bay Windows or Innewsweekly, back in the days when print wasn’t dead and the Paradise wasn’t just a rock club but had a seedier name-stealer gay bar contender near the Necco factory. We were getting our very own gay bar in Davis Square?! I could sit on a barstool with a bunch of lesbians, listen to better music than I could ever dare to wish to hear at Avalon, get drunk and stumble a whole three blocks home?!?! What a great new addition to our neighborhood! When do they cut the ribbon? I forget exactly how the paper worded it, but what the article described for some reason had me thinking it was an establishment that would be slinging alcohol, not coffee, to this twentysomething disenchanted salty New England queer. Perhaps they had referred to it as Diesel Bar, instead of Diesel Cafe? Regardless, coffee.
Oh. Well… I guess that’s fine, too. I mean, Someday Cafe certainly wasn’t getting any younger and on the coldest winter days when you walked past their fogged over windows, you just knew you weren’t getting one of the good seats. Another coffee space in which to hang, to write endlessly in overdramatic journals pounding mocha after mocha, would be most welcome. I never thought I’d find myself working in one. I never thought I’d still be doing it twenty years on, either. And yet. Raise a glass to longevity. It turned out I was in it to win it and Diesel Cafe gave me that bug at the impressionable”young” age of 25 (even then, still older than most of my coworkers in the field).
It’s not like I even knew what a barista was or how to spell it. I didn’t exactly know or care what went into my Someday Cafe mochas (crack in that whipped cream might have been a vital component. We’ll never know). I liked music played good and loud, art on the walls, good smells and good drinks and good eats and good people to look at. I liked a comfy seat not in my own apartment where I could be around people but not necessarily “with” them. Once Diesel Cafe actually opened, once we were inside it’s splashy primary colored walls with the garage door open in May and some cute, confident gay boys and girls and everything inbetween working behind the counter, I just knew it was the SPACE that I wanted to work in from that point on.
I let months go by. The entire summer. My husband (boyfriend & roommate at the time) had become regulars. Clubbing we always found to be a bit of a let down, but a good Monkey Wrench paired with a Mocha Slide was guaranteed to knock your socks off on a Saturday afternoon. We started to become friendly with the staff. I think I had sheepishly asked Rusty about a job there and it may have been her who got me the job. I told my full-time cubicle call center warehouse district doldrum job that I wanted to cut back to 3 days a week so I could “go make coffee in my neighborhood!” instead on the other 2 days. For 7 bucks an hour. Plus tips. He humored me and adjusted my schedule.
I’d worked in restaurants right out of high school. There was never a college plan. When escaping Fitchburg, Massachusetts, one barely got out of high school, made uneasy friends with the folks moving to Somerville who needed any roommate they could get, got a job and worked to pay rent and survive and that was all there was to it. So I’d had experience in the food industry. Just not so much the face behind the counter handling your transaction. Let alone manning the espresso machine. Or making drinks. What is espresso, again? I loved it all so much right off the bat that by the time September 1999 had drawn to a close, I’d given Cross Industries my notice and jumped full time (my boss, shocked, waved a $13/hr pay rate in my face to keep me onboard and I waved it and all the accompanying benefits goodbye) into Diesel Cafe. The birth of a donkey. And, by the time I left Diesel Cafe, I had become their first full time general manager and had seven and a half years of experience under my belt. Experience. There wasn’t going to be a better place to get it. Anybody who’s been there, knows. It is not a quiet, slow, sleepy little shop. Diesel, as I remember it, was (and probably still is) really fucking busy. And back then we did it all. We took your order, rang you up (it would be a few years before credit cards came into play there. We actually counted you back your change! Accurately! With pennies!). We grabbed you your pastry (mint brownie, anyone? They’re nice and cold fresh out the fridge!), made you your drink (another Solid Six, Steve? How about a Rusty Slide? A raspberry lime ricky? Would you like dark roast, or light roast? How about decaf? On drip?). After the first five years or so we upped the game from Espresso Express to Intelligentsia straight from Chicago and you eventually even got your latte handed to you with the most delicate of rosettas poured perfectly (painfully! Latte art was NEW to us all! It took me my entire youth to get it down!). We bussed your dishes, asked you politely not to lie across the pool tables even though there were no seats left for you on that Tuesday night, we made your salads and sandwiches fresh made to order and ran across the neighborhood to get you more turkey because we all loved Monkey Wrenches. We shoveled the sidewalks during blizzards and never opened late. When you weren’t looking, we were in the back slicing tomatoes, some of us our fingers, portioning roast beef, putting all of the orders away, making bank deposits, covering each other’s shifts. And we were open til like midnight or something crazy like that, and served NO alcohol! People down here in Austin, TX can not even conceive of that.
We worked harder and faster and became more efficient as a team as the business grew and grew. Best of all, we managed to have fun doing it, too. What I recall (and what is so very different from the coffee scene today), is there was not a whole lot of pretension amongst us “baristas”. We at Diesel were of a time before any of us knew or cared about national coffee competitions. We weren’t terribly well-versed in varietals, palate development, or even experts in various brew methods (it was drip or die back in the day!), or participating in monthly latte art throwdowns. I don’t ever recall thinking about any of my coworkers “Oh that’s so and so, the resident coffee expert!” because all of us were still learning as we went along. So, in that sense, I don’t ever recall Diesel being the place where the customer was intimidated or overwhelmed by the menu offerings and nobody behind the bar looked down their nose at the guest who always simply wanted a vietnamese coffee each morning.
So, yes, one of my major takeaways was that at Diesel, we just knew how to work and get things done and we did it all GOOD. The coffee was good, the food was good, the vibes were good. I was never embarrassed by our product and you can’t always say that about the places you work. We constantly hustled and made it look easy. It wasn’t always easy.
But, we were respected. We were rewarded for our efforts. We were recognized. And (this might sound kind of stupid) we were trained. And retrained. And trained again. We also worked alongside our bosses. The owner of the shop was also your coworker. You don’t know how huge all of that is. It’s the kind of work experience I haven’t really had since leaving Somerville and it’s something that I sorely miss.
Having been at this coffee game a while now, I’ve seen a shift and a bit of a disconnect in terms of how folks communicate and how information is dispersed. It’s something entering Year 20 that I’m trying to be mindful of in my own day to day. Folks nowadays tend to manage too much through Slack, via email, Basecamp, they’ll leave training manuals on Dropbox for you to download and reference at a later date. I, myself, and am old-school donkey.
To this day, I still have my dozens of hand-crafted birthday notes, holiday cards, and varied bits and pieces of appreciations and thank yous from my Diesel days, kept in a shoebox under my bed. Every now and then, when I have my “not such hot shit now, are you?” days, my “why am I still in this?” kind of days, my “shouldn’t you be doing something else with your life?” days, I think back on some of those notes and occasionally pull them out and remind myself: “Oh. That’s right. This donkey kicks ass!” That, comes from Diesel. That, is my fuel. I’m turning 20 in coffee this year.
I’ve learned much since leaving Diesel and still have much more to learn. My rock solid concrete foundation will always be Diesel Cafe. It is the slab upon which I have built my coffee career (and it IS a career. Take heed young barista, you too can pay a mortgage on a house with these skills!). It is the standard by which I judge all other places of employment. Heck, I still get recognized in Austin fucking Texas by old regulars who start off conversations with “This might seem like a crazy question, but didn’t you used to work at Diesel?” I never thought I would get visibility from sheepishly asking “Are you folks hiring?” but I am so very glad that I did.
To 20 more for all involved.