At Petaluma’s Aqus, turning a cafe into a community hub

Sometimes a leap of faith, like leaving a job, moving across the country or just going to the local cafe one night in lieu of watching TV, can create life-changing partnerships.

John Crowley and Diane Gentile took their own leaps from very different places, at different times in their lives, both landing in Petaluma. The impetus for Gentile, a former product designer who traveled between Manhattan and Miami for most of her career, was the realization that her dogged focus on work had inadvertently left her isolated from her friends and family.

“I think I wasn’t so different from so many others who devote themselves to work. We spend... all of our precious energy just for that elusive sense of success,” she said. “We give it our all and then look around to see what’s left and realize there’s little semblance of our original selves intact.”

Gentile remembered the “golden hills” of the North Bay from her childhood and, like Crowley 17 years before her, she moved to the welcoming town of Petaluma with its comfortable size, quirkiness, proximity to nature and the locals’ unwavering kindness. After a six-month acclimation period, where she “disciplined” herself to slow down and have “random” conversations with people on the street, Gentile ended up at a movie night at Aqus Cafe, a buzzing oasis of food, drink and art at the Foundry Wharf. In one evening, a door to the vibrant community around her opened. She had found her place and her people - including Crowley, who co-owns the cafe.

“Through this basic human interaction, I found myself again,” she said.

The serendipity of this moment, however, belies the fact that Crowley and his business partner, Lesley McCullaugh, had very intentionally created the cafe to foster relationships and build community. Crowley arrived in Petaluma from Dublin, Ireland (via Germany), 23 years ago for a two-year visit with his brother and never left. He raised a family in Petaluma, built a career as a computer programmer and created Aqus Cafe and its associated nonprofit organization, the Aqus Community Foundation.

Crowley and McCullaugh, who is from England, opened the cafe 10 years ago and modeled it after the public houses they grew up with. Their goal was to create a community watering hole that welcomes people from all walks of life. On any given day at Aqus, you will find multiple generations enjoying the local food, drink, music and art. The clientele reflect the “range of everybody who lives in Petaluma,” said Crowley. But more than that, the cafe draws a certain type of person who is interested in participating in community and creating a better place to live.

While McCullaugh focuses primarily on the workings of the cafe, Crowley’s passion lies with the Community Foundation that also reflects this sentiment. Its mission is to build social capital, which Crowley described as the connectedness of a community and the level of trust in networks of people that provides a sense of belonging and encouragement to invest in where they live.

“A strong sense of community translates into people being active, for example, in the PTA and in local government,” said Crowley. “And this translates into places where people want to live and businesses want to move.”

And when the people invest in where they live, either through the local economy or through relationships with their neighbors, the community’s “social equity” goes up, he said. In other words, local businesses thrive, property values increase and, overall, it becomes a better place to live.

With this philosophy as a guiding force, the Aqus Community Foundation offers a plethora of community-centered activities that allow people to share meals and interests and connect them with their neighbors and their town.

“I like to think that the Aqus Community has had an impact on Petaluma,” said Crowley.

It certainly had an impact on Gentile. Convinced of the healing power of community in her own life, she joined forces with Crowley to run the Community Foundation and, this year, they became husband and wife.

Together they organize gatherings and events like foreign language groups in Hungarian, Farsi and Turkish, a newcomer’s club for people who have just moved to town, poetry readings, historical talks, a “Juggle-In” and a Kite Day for kids. They have an ongoing list of “community crawls” through local restaurants and bars, themed mixers and, recently, something called “Drinks with Shrinks” for local therapists to meet each other and their community. Many of their events happen at the cafe, but some have outgrown that space - like the Veg-Curious group for people interested in exploring a plant-based diet, which now meets at the Petaluma Seed Bank, or the Petaluma Shakespeare Festival, which grew out of a small production at the cafe. And members, who pay between $35-$200 per year for individuals and organizations, get discounts around town and access to special events like holiday dinners.

Both Gentile and Crowley believe the Community Foundation is more than just a way to get people together. Gentile, who cited studies on longevity that claim it is linked to social relationships, attests that it’s not just about getting together to share a drink or language - it’s about supporting each other for physical and mental well-being.

“If everybody was in these great communities like Petaluma, then we’d all be more complete and more whole and healthy as humans,” she said.

And Crowley said a nurse he knows prescribed the Aqus Community to her patient instead of Zoloft.

“If you have community, you don’t need some of this other stuff,” he said.

To find out more about what the Aqus Community has to offer, visit their website at

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