One of the toughest businesses to venture into is the restaurant industry. And a vegan restaurant would seem even tougher to make a go of it. But Tamearra Dyson’s Souley Vegan, which she in 2006 in Oakland, is thriving and expanding.
As the story goes, Dyson had very little startup funds–just $30 in the cash register. But what she had was a love of cooking passed down from her mother and a desire to run her own business. She was, in fact, on her way to becoming a nurse when the entrepreneurial bug bit hard. “I was one prerequisite away from nursing school. I worked at a hospital in the surgery center as an Endoscopy Technician,” she says. Instead, she put all her energies into introducing Oakland to vegan cooking—with a dash of soul.
Among the dishes: Southern Fried Tofu, Mac & Cheese, Southern Fried Vegan Burger, vegan potato salad and yams. Think your grandmother’s soul food but made healthy, vegan style.
“I turned vegan myself at the age of 17. All of a sudden, I found it inhumane to eat flesh off of a bone. It just didn’t seem right. It was later that other reasons developed such as the treatment of animals and the way it affects your digestive tract,” recalls Dyson, who is a single mother. “My mother was the cook of the family preparing meals for my grandfather that I would walk over to his house in the early morning as well as my uncles who would get up early in the morning for work. That is where I developed the love for cooking in addition to my family being originally from Louisiana, I guess it was destined to be.”
Though she didn’t have many resources, she had the determination to make her new restaurant popular with locals. “[It was] hard work and prayer. My son and I would work the local farmers market tirelessly, in addition to catering jobs, etc. I would travel anywhere for small jobs because I needed the money,” she explains. “Statistically, I should not have made it but what I made is what I put into the business and I sacrificed everything else. I had two pair of pants that I rotated–I mean everything went into the business.”
Of course there were many challenges, with financing being the biggest. “Capital has been the largest challenge in addition to my being a single mom. Being able to balance the two has certainly been challenging and both have been extremely rewarding,” she says. Another challenge is managing her business while remaining true to her personality. “[it is difficult] to find a medium between being too nice and being too firm. Too firm will age you before your time, however being too nice will kill the business because people won’t respect it. You have to wear both hats so people will understand that because I have a good heart, does not mean I am a pushover,” she shares.
Despite the fact that many people might not understand a vegan diet, her customers seem more than satisfied as she has diners who come to the restaurant multiple times in one week. “I would say so because you automatically limit your clientele by having a vegan menu, I have been asked through the years to serve fish but that is not my passion so I will not do it,” explains Dyson on why she sticks with the vegan offerings. “I am blessed that my patrons are very diverse in all areas so I get a lot of meat eaters which is great. I feel like that validates the flavor of the food.”
Dyson is now looking to expand the Souley Vegan brand in more ways than one. “One of my goals is getting Souley Vegan’s products into more stores in the grab-and-go sections as well as the development of the frozen food line,” she says. Dyson is also looking into opening more locations.
Besides having a successful business, Dyson says there is much more she gets out of Souley Vegan. “I enjoy feeding the community food that is not only healthy for their bodies but also healthy for their mind. When you feel better, you think better and as a result you do better for your community. So I guess I feel like I’m helping to change the world one plate at a time,” she says with a smile.