Dame Dia rose from a dishwasher to become the owner of the restaurant chain where he worked

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 26, 2024 12:28 PM EDT
Senegalese American Dame Dia.
Senegalese American Dame Dia. Photo Credit: Native Foods

In 2015, Native Foods had its peak with 26 branches throughout the United States. Since then, the company has undergone substantial downsizing, operating only in three locations: Chicago, IL; Palm Springs, CA; and Glendale, CO., as of the last quarter of 2023.

However, Native Foods marked a significant milestone in September 2023. CEO Daniel Dolan announced a major restructuring of the pioneering plant-based restaurant chain, transitioning the remaining three locations into employee-owned entities after closing eight locations in 2023.

Dame Dia, a Senegalese American and the Chicago District Manager for the brand received a remarkable birthday surprise: the opportunity to become the owner of the last surviving Native Foods establishment in Chicago. This announcement heralded widespread excitement within the community, particularly among those concerned about the potential shutdown of the Chicago Loop location following the earlier closure of the Wicker Park and Lakeview branches.

“When I first came to Native Food, people thought I was the owner. Because everywhere I work, 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.”

Dame’s journey to ownership is a testament to resilience and the unwavering support of his community. Hailing from Senegal, Dia has immersed himself in the food industry for over 15 years. His career trajectory, which commenced in Queens, NY, is a tale of remarkable advancement, starting from a dishwasher role at Red Lobster and ascending to the position of General Manager at the same establishment. Before departing New York, he managed multiple dining establishments at JFK Airport’s Terminal 5, where he also crossed paths with his wife, OnjaLee LaShay, renowned in Chicago as “The Connector” for her extensive marketing and networking prowess.

In 2018, Dia joined Native Foods, swiftly rising to the role of District Manager. Since he arrived at Native Foods, his unwavering dedication and wealth of experience have played a pivotal role in driving the success of Native Foods‘ Chicago location.

Dia’s commitment extended far beyond his official duties. He often stayed late to assist colleagues and willingly came to work on his days off to ensure the store was well-maintained. Remembering names, faces, and orders was his hallmark. For him, it was more than just a job; it was a place he considered home.

“When I told my wife about the opportunity, she said, ‘You act like the boss anyway, so you might as well take it,’” said Dia.

LaShay, Dia’s wife of five years, vividly remembers the extensive hours her husband dedicated to his work, amazed by his unwavering commitment and resolve; although she had witnessed it repeatedly throughout their years together. Whether dealing with demanding customers or managing finances, Dia exhibited the same level of skill and composure. According to LaShay, he made it all seem effortless.

“This is the only business that he was a part of where he felt like it was our family, our people. Everywhere you went, it was like he was the star of the show,” said LaShay, who met Dia when she was a flight attendant.

Dia reflects on the journey of owning a restaurant for the first time, acknowledging its highs and lows. He desires to welcome back familiar guests while also attracting new patrons to the establishment.

As a Senegalese individual, he aims to introduce elements of his culture to the menu. His primary focus at the moment is on ensuring the success of the restaurant given its status as the sole Native Foods location in Chicago.

Dia emphasizes his commitment to success, driven by his care for the business and the importance of his reputation. Drawing from his experience overseeing eateries, he finds little difference between working at Native Foods and owning the restaurant, as he has always approached his roles with a sense of ownership.

With 15 years immersed in the food and restaurant industry, Dame Dia has worn many hats, from dishwasher roles to spearheading the opening of Red Lobster establishments in Times Square. However, owning his own Native Foods franchise is the one “hat” he has long aspired to don.

Having journeyed from his homeland of Senegal to forge a new life in the United States, initially as an employee and now transitioning to become the first Black owner of Native Foods, Dia is confident in his experience, skills, and determination to distinguish his restaurant among other vegan options.

Native Foods, a fully plant-based restaurant, began in Palm Springs, California, in 1994. With Dia now taking ownership of the final Chicago location, Michael Oivas, an Assistant Manager who joined the company in 2014, has assumed ownership of the Glendale, Colorado, branch. Meanwhile, the Palm Springs, California, branch now belongs to Misti Rausch and Sean Reynolds, dedicated employees since 2013 and 2014, respectively.