The tragic and blessed life story of Tamearra Dyson is baked into every Southern Staples Bowl served up daily at Souley Vegan, her downtown Oakland restaurant.
The signature bowl, an intriguing, multi-textured blend of crunchy fried tofu, buttered grits, flavorful house-made okra gumbo and comforting greens, is just one among other vegan main dishes, starters and sides, sandwiches, burgers, “rawesome salads” and beverages, such as Strawberry Ginger Splash and Cayenne Lemonade. Brewing within each offering is entrepreneur, chef and owner Dyson’s ancestral and eclectic personal history. This includes her grandfather’s Louisiana/Creole cuisine; a scientific, investigative mindset; academic studies and hands-on training to become a nurse; a young mother’s desire to feed her child healthy food; haunting memories of childhood hunger and food insecurity endured in a house filled with a mother’s abundant love; and the echoes of an abusive, mostly absentee father whose verbal barrage nearly whittled her soul to nothing.
When opening Souley Vegan in July 2009, Dyson said in an interview, veganism was less well understood. The idea of Louisiana-style vegan food often caused people to chuckle or hesitate. Educating customers gradually was a delicate art she first honed at farmer’s markets. It involved encouragement with a light touch to sample the food, but never proselytizing or demanding commitment to a complete dietary regime.
Fast-forward to 2022, when visitors to the Oakland bricks-and-mortar establishment nimbly slurp up the all-vegan menu and bask in the restaurant’s warm, Deep South-style hospitality. Demand is at a high enough volume to have prompted a recent expansion from one location to four. Adding to the Oakland restaurant, Souley Vegan has introduced service in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
What drives exponential growth? A life mission she says became her purpose at age five. “One of my driving forces was to take care of my mother because I’ve seen her struggle. She suffered depression, and yet every day, she was going to a job working for people who didn’t respect her. At five years old, I vowed to someday take care of her. My mother gave us overabundant love, but we were also hungry. We sometimes went three days without eating. That’s three days of not eating anything. Eventually, my mother made decisions to leave us with our father, and she still feels sorrow and regret because my father was abusive. At some point, I decided I could be a victim or turn it into strength. I had to make a choice. And I did it. I retired, and my mother lives with me now. Ultimately, it was my decision not to stay in that mental space of lack, of fear, of my father telling me I’m not anything. I finally said no, I chose a different direction.”
Souley Vegan has been voted one of the Top 10 soul food restaurants in the country by USA Today. Dyson has been featured on Triple D and Beat Bobby Flay! on the Food Network, Food Rush with Ryan Scott on the Live Well Network, and was selected to partner with Weight Watchers Reimagined for the Ms. Oprah (Winfrey’s) 2020 Vision Your Life Tour. She caters celebrity events nationwide, donates to local organizations annually and mentors young adults in the Bay Area community.
The universality of her story she calls “one-ness” translates into experiences that allow her to identify with people whose life circumstances have landed them in different spaces and who appear in her restaurant representing a broad swath of humanity rising from different genders, ages, races and cultures. “Although I’m packaged as a Black woman and I’m an example to women, it doesn’t stop there. I’m supposed to help all people. I’m not a religious person, but I feel as if I’m following my path. The path is who I was, who I am—and who I am supposed to become.”
Like many food innovators, Dyson’s background in medical science pinwheels within her underlying soulful, introspective mental cycling as she pursues a dream begun when her son, Aquil, now 27, was a young boy. She recalls going into the kitchen as if it were a laboratory. “In terms of science, I grew up watching my mother make everything from scratch. I learned the value of building flavor. When I started cooking, I just got in the kitchen and started creating flavors and textures. I made a million things based on tofu. I could do everything from savory to sweet. That started my alchemy, my creative process.”
With foods she has never sampled, like oxen, Dyson consults with people who have eaten them. “I ask them about taste and texture. Once I know that, I can recreate it as a vegan product. I have learned how different ingredients act on a food. The kitchen is my lab.”
The creative process and the business structures she has established at Souley Vegan are similar to practices she discovered useful while training to be a nurse at Marin General Hospital in San Rafael. “During the last years of my medical career, I worked in endoscopy in the emergency department. Everything had to be efficient. You had a human being on the table; you had to speak in exact terms, be direct, be prompt. I brought that to my business.” She learned when speaking to someone about health, to talk about the whole person: spiritual, mental, physical. “It all has to be healthy to live a wholesome life. That is why I go into all aspects of my life; I have found people connect through similar things they are dealing with in their lives.”
Speaking with guests at the restaurant about how she overcame her “internal bully” is told through a narrative of seitan “steaks” served with creamy mashed potatoes, or Louisiana Gator Bites and mushrooms battered in a spicy Creole mix that arrive dressed in a secret house-made swamp sauce, or sweet, tender Louisiana beignets, the state’s official donut. Comfort comes with battered and seasoned hearts of palm “calamari” or individual cast-iron skillets full of “sizzlin’ rigatoni pesto mac & cheeze” and sweet potato biscuits.
“I share my roadmap. Usually, people start a business with a lot of money, a team, a board, backing. I had no employees and I had only 27 dollars in cash when I started. On paper, it was insane.” A few people took a chance on Dyson; she landed a lease, found a seed investor and worked solo. “Souley Vegan has been my school. It is now my duty to teach others how I got up. I can share the recipe for my journey and hope it gives them strength to keep going. As a collective, success in America is viewed as a dollar sign. For me, it’s not one component. It’s not veganism only. Even when I pulled 18 to 20 hour days, it knew I had to make it work. I had to follow my intuition, the spirit that said I was in the right vibration.”
For all the positivity, Dyson is aware of how much hardship has been—and continues to be—a part of her biography and the stories she is told by customers. “I’ve had people come through and share stories of attempted suicide. The stories come from newcomers and regulars. One woman who’d come in only a few times called me over to her table and shared with me that she wanted to go to bed and never wake up. We had a long talk. I come from love because I remember not having food. I have felt pain, so I feel the pain of others. As Souley Vegan grows, I have to up my offerings by doing more speaking engagements nationwide.”
As she expands the Souley Vegan brand, she admits to having concerns about maintaining integrity. “I have always said I want a place where people feel so comfortable they are breaking out a deck of cards at the table. What I tell my staff, my team, is to acknowledge everyone. Go above and beyond to make people feel cared for. When they come in here, we say you’re important, we respect you. I love the people who come through our doors. I feel responsible for their health. It comes from seeing my mother not be respected. In my way, I’m fulfilling how I felt towards her with other people.”
When pressed to address how she will ensure her expanding culinary empire remains consistent, Dyson says hiring key team members is paramount. “Of course, I ask regional and general managers if they have experience in normal things like inventory control. But I also ask about their work ethic because you can find someone with work experience who isn’t hard working. It needs to be someone who’s like me in terms of working around the clock, knowing they’ll need to be in the kitchen on weekends, someone who believes in the brand and wants to grow in the position. I bring on management that from the starting point, believes in the brand.”
Gearing up for franchising in the future, she says the move will be new territory and requires she up her filters. “Trusting franchisees with the brand will mean they have to understand running a restaurant is a day-to-day, hands-on operation. I need them to show they’ve done something in the past that was highly stressful and how they handled it.” To make sure processes are followed in the three newest locations, Dyson set up hub manufacturing facilities so all of the food is coming from one place and can be handled consistently. “I’ve worked tirelessly to delegate responsibility to general and regional managers who stay on top of the newest locations. I do spot checks using “secret shoppers” who purchase food, and follow up with them to find out if the food is consistent and the experience positive.”
All of which leaves little time for “side” dreams, such as a first cookbook and completing a memoir she has thought about but has found impossible to fit into her schedule. And then there is time in the kitchen, experimenting. “As we grow, I have to delegate more so I can free myself to create.” It’s likely those experimental sessions will involve cayenne, the spice she most adores. “When I consider cayenne, it’s not just heat. It’s about the quantity and balance between seasonings. When you throw cayenne in, there’s just a little heat in the back of your throat. It doesn’t burn in your mouth. The food’s taste hits your palette, and then when that graduates, you get the heat comfort of cayenne. It also helps regulate your digestive tract. I always put it in my food, always.”
One story she tells about a conversation with a member of her team illustrates how Dyson might track, but never be bound or defined by vegan trends, such as “vegan cheeses that are killing it” and a plethora of plant-based meat alternatives available not only in specialty stores but in average grocery stores. “My team member was exploring a raw food diet and asked if I’d ever go raw. I said, ‘No, I am gumbo.’ You have the roux, the layers of flavors in a stewing pot of richness. It’s like my soul, my spirit being fed. Gumbo is obviously cooked, so I don’t see myself going raw.”
Instead, Dyson in the kitchen is more likely to aim for “flavors and textures a mouth wants.” Front-of-house, she’ll work to craft an energetic atmosphere that makes people feel welcome and to educate without preaching. “They can explain to them what they don’t understand about vegan food. Souley Vegan has to be and is a safe place,” she says. If Dyson can continue to pull it off in Oakland and as the brand expands, eating in cities in the United States just got a promise for Louisiana/Creole vegan cuisine that’s good for every body, mind and soul.