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The New Fuel Café is Nothing Like the Original One


Scott Johnson discusses Fuel’s “grown-up” new location


Mar. 28, 2017
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These are hard times to be a change-averse Milwaukeean. The city is reinventing itself at a rapid clip, as its neighborhoods swell with new condos, trendy bars and high-end restaurants. While many residents are reveling in that growth, there’s a vocal contingent that can’t help but feel left behind. If you’re friends with any on Facebook, you know who they are: They’re the proud defenders of Milwaukee’s grungy, blue-collar heritage, and like the revamped Palomino menu, the proposed “People’s Flag” and virtually everything that’s happened on North Avenue over the last decade, the new Fuel Café in Walker’s Point seems almost purposefully designed to get under their skin.

It’s easy to see why they’re so protective of the original Fuel. For nearly a quarter century, the Center Street café has been one of the quintessential Riverwest landmarks, a hub for musicians, activists and motorcycle enthusiasts, the kind of place where you can pick up a $3 punk zine to read with your no-frills coffee and plastic-wrapped sandwich. It’s sacred.

Anybody entering the new Fuel Café at 640 S. Fifth St. expecting a recreation of that grimy ambiance is in for a case of the bends. The air of affluence hits you the moment you open the door. A grab-and-go coffee counter at the front of the building seems familiar enough, right down to the borrowed signage promising “Killer Coffee, Lousy Service,” but the back of the café is a whole different beast: a decadently spacious bar and restaurant with an ultra-modern design akin to Fuel’s sister Bel Air Cantina restaurants. A remarkably polite host escorts patrons to their tables, while ESPN plays on large flat-screen televisions above the bar. A wall lists 15 craft beers on tap, and a selection of wines.

Scott Johnson, who co-owns Fuel with Leslie Montemurro, understands why some longtime patrons have been taken aback by the new location. “It’s really flattering to us that people feel this ownership in the brand, and Leslie and I can totally appreciate that,” Johnson says. “From the beginning, we always thought we were operating on the fringe, and Riverwest people got that. Those were our people, and that was our thing. We find it really heartwarming that they still have an affinity for that.”

Those Riverwest loyalists can take solace knowing that the Center Street Fuel Café remains the same as it’s always been, and is unlikely to change any time soon. As for the Walker’s Point café, though, Johnson explains, “It’s all the things that we kind of wished Fuel could be as we got older.

“You know, we started Fuel when we were just 25, 26 years old, 24 years ago, and as the years passed we’ve learned more about the restaurant business,” he continues. “We never wanted to change the original Fuel because we believe so strongly in what it is, and I know a lot of people do, too, so the new one is kind of Fuel, only grown up, like we are.”

The menu, overseen by Bel Air chef Noe Zamora, reflects that maturation. Hearty as the cuisine is, it’s fresher and greener than most comfort food in its price range. Rather than fries, the default side for all sandwiches is a mound of salad made from, among many other ingredients, kale, endive, Brussels sprout leaves and a light mustard vinaigrette.  

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it health food, but maybe it’s a little healthier than what you usually find,” Johnson says of the menu. “We’ve learned a lot since 1993. We’ve grown as people and learned to eat better. What people like to eat and want to eat has changed. Plus we wanted the menu to reflect how we like to eat. Any good restaurant has to reflect the tastes of the people who started it.”

Despite the considerable departures from its sister location, Johnson says he never considered naming the new restaurant anything other than Fuel. “We really wanted to use that brand,” he says, explaining the new location was conceived with the original’s same motorcycle motifs in mind. “A lot of the reason we wanted to be in Walker’s Point is because of how much of a presence motorcycles have in the neighborhood because of the Iron Horse and the Harley-Davidson Museum. There’s a motorcycle shop around the corner from us, and hopefully there will be more motorcycle businesses popping up. We wanted to be part of the motorcycle corridor that it’s becoming.” 

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