Upon walking inside Top Fuel Espresso, you’re greeted by the delectable scent of coffee and warm pastries, charming car-inspired décor, and a warm chorus of hellos from the baristas. Top Fuel Espresso is a locally owned specialty coffee shop located in Gilbert, Arizona. Jessica Denison, founder, owner, and creator, prides herself on the quality of her beverages, and the contributions she makes to better her community.
Top Fuel is truly a community establishment through and through; sourcing all of their beans, baked goods, and equipment locally around the Phoenix valley. Supporting other small businesses is a core value that encapsulates the spirit of Top Fuel Espresso and it’s owner.
In the Denison family, coffee isn’t something you pick up from a corner shop— it’s about making memories. Denison spent her childhood mornings with her dad Jim seeking out coffee stands near their Washington home before school every day. It was these small moments that led to her zeal for all things coffee.
Despite only being allowed to drink mochas minus the espresso (aka hot chocolate), Denison was captivated by the inviting environment the local shops created. She knew early on that she wanted to work at one of the coffee stands, but never fathomed the idea of owning her own. That idea came a little later.
“I knew the baristas super well, they knew our family super well,” Denison explained. “It was just something we did every single day, so it’s close to my heart, and it’s something I want to give our community — a local coffee shop where we can see families and their kids and all that good stuff.”
Denison began her entrepreneurial journey as a barista at a large coffee chain, where she gained invaluable knowledge about the day to day job responsibilities, and unearthed as much as she could about the industry as a whole.
The notion to open up her own shop began brewing in the back of her mind as she went through college. Denison discovered she was overflowing with ideas: ideas for names, for drinks, and for a theme inspired from her familial roots. The completion of her business administration degree coupled with her knack for creativity were the perfect mix for success, and Top Fuel Espresso was born.
Denison started the first ever Top Fuel Espresso in a fruit market in Apache Junction, opened a second location at the popular SanTan Village Shopping Center, and now has a first-rate drive-through location in Gilbert on Cooper and Guadalupe.
Coffee isn’t the only passion that Denison and her dad share; they also have a love for drag racing. When Denison wasn’t trying out new coffee stands, she was competing as a junior dragster. She lived for the thrill and high-speed, high-stakes environment of racing, thriving under intense competition. It wasn’t long before her two passions in life collided, merging into one unstoppable force: Top Fuel Espresso.
Denison’s entire family embodies the spirit of the racetrack; their need for speed even made it onto their menu— every specialty drink is named after famous tracks of the past and present. The name cleverly sports a double meaning: Top Fuel signifies both top-rated caffeine and elite racing. If Denison is absent next time you stop into Top Fuel Espresso, it’s safe to assume she’s out rooting for her dad, who still competes in races to this day with a dragster named after the family business.
Denison explained that the most overwhelming emotion she had when opening her coffee shop was worry.
“It’s a scary feeling,” she revealed. “It’s hard to create something and get people on board with it. People are super tough critics and if they don’t like it, they’ll tell you they don’t like it. And you have to adjust.”
Adjusting and learning as she goes has been a key factor to Denison’s success. While others remain stagnant, Denison adjusted the ratio of her espresso recipe twice, and is constantly on the lookout for new ways to ensure her customers’ happiness.
“When we travel we go to local coffee shops and we try their stuff, and we ask them about it,” Denison explained. “We learn so much about the types of beans, and where they come from, and how they affect the flavor of the coffee, and we’ll be like ‘wow, that is the best coffee I’ve had in a long time,’ and it’ll be something that we want to recreate and try ourselves.”
Top Fuel Espresso is so much more than just a local coffee shop. Staying true to the brand name, Denison holds car shows in their parking lot once a month to bring together coffee and car lovers alike.
On top of that, she also sponsors two local sports teams, and is in the process of building school programs through Parent Teacher Associations.
“We think building a school program would be a really good way for people to start supporting more local businesses and coming to Top Fuel more,” she elaborated. “They could be giving teachers gift cards to Top Fuel instead of giving teachers gift cards to Starbucks. Really, it’s about getting the word out, getting involved in the schools, and just getting to know everybody.”
Denison has found her place on the internet where Top Fuel Espresso shines, and it’s little surprise that TikTok and Instagram are her favorite advertising platforms. Through them, Denison can easily share her story, her decadent coffee creations, and reach a broader local audience with charming videos that burst with personality.
Creating TikToks and Instagram reels, however, is not for the faint of heart. Denison described social media endeavors as a daunting task. Mustering the courage to get in front of the camera and do something creative and unique is a gamble. She never knows if her efforts will be a success or end in a supercharger explosion (failure in the drag race world, for those of us who aren’t up to speed on our racing terms).
“You can post something from TikTok on Instagram reels, and some people don’t really get it,” Denison said. “Like my dad doesn’t understand the TikToks — he doesn’t understand any of that. But if you were to ask an 18- or 20-year-old that comes through the drive-through, they’ll be like ‘oh my god I saw your TikTok, that was so funny.’ Really it’s figuring out how to connect with different audiences.”
On top of being their advertising and social media manager, Denison also has to navigate how to be Top Fuel’s manager and owner.
For Denison, understanding the nuances of managing has been her biggest challenge to overcome. Although she has experience managing other stores, it becomes more difficult when the emotions that come with owning her own business are at play.
“I want my employees to be my family, so it’s very hard for me to decipher the line I guess, or to be tough on them, because I see them all as my family. They help me with this business; they help me grow.”
When it comes to helping her business grow, there is one person in particular who has always been there for Denison as an inspiration, a support, and even a friend: her dad. Denison and her dad support each other’s dreams and passions every day, and it is together, not apart, where they truly shine.
When talking to Denison, her passion and spirit for her business and community were brought to a beautiful light. So we asked Jess a simple question: If you could tell your customers just one thing, what would you tell them?
“I would just tell my customers that I appreciate them. Their business and their friendliness is worth more to me than it would ever be to Starbucks, or Dutch Bros, or any of them. I think it’s important to connect with the people you live around, and I think this is a good way to do it. At the end of the day, it’s all about building a stronger community.”
Next time you’re out and about, stop by Top Fuel Espresso!
You can visit them at:
740 W Guadalupe Rd
Gilbert, AZ 85233
And follow them on socials here!
This blog was led and written by Copywriting Intern Julia Hensley and overseen by Casey Watts and Cody Eastlick.