Since it opened in 1993, Fuel Cafe has been the unofficial center of Riverwest.
On a recent afternoon, police officers stopped in for coffee to go, visiting train-hopping punks did crossword puzzles, a middle-aged couple sat down for lunch, and Slava, a local street musician and well-known regular, nursed his coffee for well over three hours.
Now, after more than ten years with only minimal changes, Fuel is about to undergo a major renovation, adding a restaurant, a bar, and outside seating in the back. Co-owners Scott Johnson and Leslie Montemurro are in the process of purchasing the building and the junk store next door, including the upstairs, basement, garage, and the parking lot in the alley.
Co-owner Scott Johnson discussed the changes over a cup of coffee at Fuel. “Fuel will always be a cafe,” he said. “It’ll always have the same look, the biker thing, the recycled materials. It’s not going to be a fancy place.” The renovated cafe will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Although the menu has yet to be developed, Johnson said it will be “comfort food,” and will probably include eggs, pancakes, breakfast burritos, hamburgers, and lots of vegetarian and vegan options, perhaps including mock chicken — a popular menu item at the Palomino, a Bay View bar and restaurant also owned by Johnson and Montemurro.
“This won’t be the place you go to go out to dinner,” Johnson said. “It’ll be more the kind of place you go to just grab something to eat.” Johnson said the menu will be affordable — with most or all items under $10. Local suppliers will be used “as much as possible,” but the emphasis will be on keeping prices low. The current cafe will remain, although it may decrease in size as the kitchen is pushed forward.
“We’ll still be doing a lot of coffee to go,” Johnson said. A plan to add a juice bar is also in the works.
Johnson and Montemurro plan to turn the current garage into a dining room, with skylights and lots of windows. The bar, pending approval of a liquor license, will be in the back. The parking lot behind the cafe will be turned into outdoor seating. The current wall that divides the cafe from the junk store will remain, Johnson said, but most of the architectural details have yet to be worked out.
Construction starts in December, and Johnson said he hopes the renovation will be finished by the spring. The cafe will remain open during most of the construction. The new cafe will be non-smoking, except for a section at the bar — a huge change for a cafe widely known for its smokiness. “Leslie and I are both smokers,” Johnson said, “but we realize that you don’t really need to have smoking where you’re serving food.”
For Johnson and Montemurro, the reasons for the changes were, in part, personal. “We’ve changed so much as people since we opened Fuel,” Johnson said. “Fuel was exactly what we wanted when we opened it, but we’re different people now.”
In addition, the cafe, which sells about 400 to 500 cups of coffee a day, has rarely shown a profit. “It’s never lost money, but it’s never made much money,” Johnson said. “It’s getting to the point where it might start losing money.” “A coffee shop is a place to hang out,” Johnson added. “If you get people who hang out all day, it’s hard to turn tables, but that just goes with the territory.” And, Johnson said, many long-time customers have suggested renovations. “We want to do stuff people in the neighborhood have been asking for a long time.”
Some older customers have stopped coming to Fuel over the years, Johnson said. “I think there’s a lot of people who used to come here, but now they’re older and they’re not into the music, the style of it, the smoke,” he said. “It’s not really their scene.” Johnson hopes that the renovations will bring them back, and attract new customers — “like moms in the daytime with their strollers and kids.”
Riverwest resident Ryan Poortenga looks forward to the changes. “Riverwest really needs another place to eat,” he said. “Especially a place that’s open later.” And, he added, “It’s still going to be Fuel. More power to them.”
John, a Fuel customer who only gave his first name, said that he did not support the changes. “I like it the way it is,” he said. “Why fix what isn’t broken?”
Johnson acknowledged that, for some regulars, any change at Fuel will be difficult to take. “There’re going to be people who are going to be really upset,” he said. “But these are changes we’ve been wanting for a long time.”
Area bar owners say they welcome the renovations. “The Fuel expansion will bring more people to the neighborhood,” said Scott Radtke, manager of the River Horse Inn, one block away. “It’d be nice to have a day when you could have a cab drop you off on Center Street and you could go from place to place all night.”
Johnson said he is often surprised at how well everything has turned out. “We picked the best space on this block, and the best neighborhood in the city,” he said. “Really, it’s the best thing we could have ever dreamed of.”