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When you reach nirvana, nobody tells you it’s behind a Jimmy John’s. 

I’m 20 minutes into a conversation with Yah-I Ausar about energy. Specifically, my energy. And about how the food we eat nourishes not just our stomachs, but our souls. For mid-afternoon, the conversation’s heavy. But that’s the thing about Ausar. He’s convinced that his food can make a difference in Chapel Hill. And if you spend enough time with him, you might be too. 

Yah-I Ausar Safari Amen is the chef and co-owner of Vegan Flava Cafe.
Photo by Jeremy M. Lange.

Ausar’s Vegan Flava Cafe is a collection of steel rolling carts, one of the five small restaurants housed inside in the Blue Dogwood Market at 306 W. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. Virtually every surface of his makeshift kitchen is bright yellow, matching the rows of corn tortilla chips stacked on one shelf. Others are filled with fresh kale, jars of nuts and a huge stash of spices. Blown up photos of menu items are taped across the counter, and brightly colored blankets are draped across every inch of silver steel. A large white banner bearing the cafe’s name hangs confidently above the stand. He chops vegetables with the same tenderness that he answers my questions, as if he’s promising them something too.

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Food photos courtesy of Vegan Flava Cafe.

“Eating is one of the most essential things that we do,” Ausar says.  “When you begin to think about what you put into your body, that is when you start to understand why we do what we do here.” 

The Vegan Flava Cafe moved to downtown Chapel Hill in 2018. It’s the cafe’s third relocation after its original Durham location in early 2017,  and a brief stint at the Northgate Mall. It’s the farthest Ausar has been from his fan base in Durham. He is also in a market that’s seeing more restaurants close, while Chapel Hill’s population continues to decrease. Ausar was able to grow a dedicated clientele in Durham; now the challenge is recreating it in Chapel Hill. 


If you had told a teenage Ausar that he would leave New York in order to open the first Black-owned vegan restaurant in North Carolina’s Triangle area, he would have laughed in your face. 

“I remember when somebody first told me that I needed to stop eating meat,” he says. “I told them there was no way in the world I would ever stop doing that.” 

Ausar originally moved to the South to study computer automation at Clark Atlanta University. While Atlanta is home to a huge native Black vegan population, its vegan restaurant side hadn’t reached its current level of popularity when he lived there. (In addition to ATL’s homegrown Black veganism, learn about Atlanta’s Black urban farmers who are revolutionizing access to local sustainable produce.) But a job at a natural health foods store had a big influence on Ausar. It was the first time he considered giving up meat. He started with pork. Then beef, poultry and fish. The hardest was cheese—that took a year and a half. 

Food photos courtesy of Vegan Flava Cafe.

“Honestly, it was not a huge moral issue at the beginning,” he said. “In the natural foods store, the conversation was always around wellness. I was largely operating on ignorance when it came to morality. I didn’t even consider what animals went through until years after I became vegan.” 

After graduating in 2001, he landed a job in human resources at Whole Foods Market. In 2005, he was transferred to the company’s Chapel Hill location. That’s where he reconnected with a woman he had known back in New York. Her name was Ma’at Em Maakheru, and she would later become his wife.  

She was a vegan, and once they started dating, it didn’t take long for Ausar to convert, too. The biggest struggle was always finding food they could eat when they weren’t at home. 

“I was just so tired of eating french fries,” Ausar says. “We started making these carrot “tuna” sandwiches. I always made a batch because I just knew there would be other vegans who would appreciate it.” 

Durham residents fell in love with their walnut tacos, almond seafood salad and chickpea tuna wraps. The duo decided to purchase a food truck, expanding what they had already started calling the Vegan Flava Cafe.

In 2010, they offered extra carrot “tuna” sandwiches to a few strangers at a conference in Raleigh. Everyone who tried one came back for more. Realizing that they might have had something on their hands, they returned to that same conference next year as a food vendor. It was a hit. After attending conferences and events as food vendors, Durham residents fell in love with their walnut tacos, almond seafood salad and chickpea tuna wraps. The duo decided to purchase a food truck, expanding what they had already started calling the Vegan Flava Cafe. 

The premise of the Vegan Flava Cafe was simple: food that was allergen-friendly but didn’t compromise on taste. Currently, their menu is completely meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free and can also be made oil-free upon request. 

Perhaps the best person to speak to Vegan Flava’s influence is Stephen Gardner El. When we met, he explained what turned El from a frequent customer to Ausar’s business partner. 

“Everything he does is based on flavor,” says El. “This is the same kind of food grandma used to make. It’s the same love and attention she put into her food. But [Ausar] just spins it.” 

The premise of the Vegan Flava Cafe was simple: food that was allergen-friendly but didn’t compromise on taste. Currently, their menu is completely meat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free and can also be made oil-free upon request.

“The first thing [Ausar] made for me was the walnut taco wrap. After that, I was hooked.” 

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After the catering requests came in, Ausar and his wife took out a high-interest loan on a trailer that they hooked up to the back of a Mercury Monterey Minivan. By 2015, they had signed the lease on a brick-and-mortar location in South Square, Durham. 


There wasn’t one reason why the Durham location closed. Both the Ausars and El gave me different answers when I spoke with them. Money came up more than once, and the shared space at Dogwood has given them an opportunity to offset rent. 

The growth of Black-owned restaurants, like many other businesses, have always been suppressed compared to its white counterparts. And while a 2015 report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that minority-owned businesses are developing at a rapid rate, it is still more than twice as likely for Black business-owners to be denied business loans and business credit-cards as compared to white business-owners, according to 2014 data from the Federal Reserve. 

During our first interview, I had noticed a FedEx logo on Ausar’s shirt. 

“I work at FedEx full time as an operations administrator,” Ausar says. “This is how I pay the bills.” 

And in the first year since it’s opened, Ausar says that the cafe struggled to break even. Ausar has been trying to get Chapel Hill students to notice Vegan Flava. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers anticipate that minority-owned businesses will be the most susceptible to economic hardship. El says that they’ve seen a definite decline in foot traffic since March. Even with offering a curbside pick-up option and delivery for larger orders, getting customers is still difficult. 

It is still more than twice as likely for Black business-owners to be denied business loans and business credit-cards as compared to white business-owners.

“Customers can’t really come in,” El said. “It’s been a tremendous decline just because of COVID-19.” 

But whether it’s urban renewal and persistent economic discrimination sweeping historically-prosperous Hayti, or hate crimes threatening Hendersonvilles’ single Black-owned brewery, or a terrible virus walloping Black businesses everywhere: community-minded entrepreneurs continue looking for ways to invest in their dreams and their neighborhoods.


When Ausar talks about the restaurant, he blends its future with his own.

“Vegan Flava is an extension of who I am to the core,” he says. “I’ve put all of myself in here.” 

When Ausar talks talking about the future of Vegan Flava, his entire demeanor changes. He wants to start selling products in health food stores and take on more catering gigs. The ultimate dream is to be able to go back to supporting his family solely through the cafe. But by far, the biggest is to begin traveling across the world, sharing his ideology of vegan food and health with others. 

Nirvana may always be behind a Jimmy John’s. But that doesn’t mean it can’t expand. 

Vegan Flava is doing curbside service for customers, and offers delivery for larger orders. Vegan Flava Cafe can be found on GrubHub, Postmates or customers can call in (919) 960-1832.

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Giulia Heyward

Giulia L. Heyward is a freelance journalist based in the South. She is
also a Roy H. Park Fellow at the Hussman School of Journalism and
Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work has
previously appeared in the Huff Post, INDY Week and Sarasota
Magazine.