Former Dishwasher Opens Black-Owned Vegan Eatery in Downtown Chicago

By Rashad Alexander

There’s always that important birthday present everyone has received that they will never forget. On his Nov. 28 birthday this past year, Dame Dia got asked one of the best questions he had ever heard: It was whether he wanted to become the owner of a restaurant where he started out as a dishwasher.

That birthday wish was granted when Dia became the owner of the 218 S. Clark location of Native Foods, a vegan restaurant chain. The now Black-owned establishment is Native Food’s lone Chicago location, with restaurants in Colorado, California and more across the U.S.

Born and raised in Senegal, Dia has been in the food industry for over 15 years. He’s worn multiple hats, from working as a dishwasher to opening Red Lobster restaurants in Times Square. But to own his own Native Foods franchise is the one “hat” he has been striving to wear for years. 

“When I first came to Native Food, a lot of people thought I was the owner. Because everywhere I walk, I take it as I own it because I care about what I do and what I can do for the crew and the guests,” Dia said. That’s why I’m so happy to be the owner.”


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This February, while celebrating being a Black-owned establishment during Black History Month, the restaurant also runs its Vegan Love campaign that honors people’s stories with love and veganism.

However, Dia’s story regarding love and veganism might be a hard one to top, as he met his wife, OnJaLee LaShay, at JFK Airport while working in the restaurant business there. They eventually reconnected again, creating an ultimate bond that resulted in marriage, as well as her becoming the head of marketing/promotions for Native Foods in Chicago.

“The first time we met, I was telling everybody she’s my wife without having a date. Because I can see she’s the type of person who’s gonna be good for me,” Dia expressed. “Support is very important to me. And she’s doing it and coaching me at the same time. I like that she’s giving me feedback on what I’m doing right and what’s wrong.”

With him being the first Black Native Foods owner, he believes that this can make his restaurant stand out alongside other vegan options.

“That’s something I’m very proud of. I feel like a lot of people see me working and know what kind of person I am,” Dia said. It motivates me and makes me love what I’m doing.”

To keep up with the theme of love, folks can share their love story on Instagram, tagging the restaurant @nativefoodscafe and using the hashtags #VeganLove2024 and #VeganLoveStory2024 to participate. 

The interior of Native Foods in Chicago.

You can also follow the Chicago location on Instagram, @chicago.nativefoods. 


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