Grace Dila, Nurturing her Community through Dila’s Corner
Written by Caleb Quay
Grace Dila, owner of Dila’s Corner, had plans and dreams to be here or there, like we all do. She knew what was going to take her there, it was not money nor anybody else.
She created her reality through the power of her body and mind. After years working in various restaurants and hotels in the Cape Town area Grace heeded the call to start her own business, one that would change the game. Grace saw beyond her personal reality, which allowed her to embark on a resilient passion project involving diverse vegetables and bettering the bellies of her community. She took some time to share her journey with us.
Grace first realised her passion for cooking when she was just 13 years old but her circumstances growing up never made pursuing it professionally viable. An unexpected opportunity materialized while she was working as a waitress at a restaurant. Management noticed her work ethic and offered to train and promote her into whichever division she wanted. Naturally she chose to train as a chef.
In addition to her admirable work ethic, Grace has a heart for people. While working in her role as a chef she always looked to help those in need. Recalling one instance:
‘I remember a young girl who said to me “mama I always wanted a 21st birthday celebration but because I have a child, I could not afford it, but I really want to”. I said she could give me whatever she can afford, and I organised the food and decorations for her. For me making her so happy inspired me to want to do more to help others’
The desire to start her own business grew over time. She started saving up and whenever she came across cookware, she would buy and store it away for the day she would start her own thing. With each new purchase she inched closer towards her dream.
One night while she was at work her home was broken into.
The decision to go full time was expedited by this tragic event. Grace, though being a single mother of two, worked the night shift. This meant that her children often went to school in the morning without seeing her. This broke her heart, working full time did not allow her to be the mother she desired to be.
“They stole my kid’s cell phones from underneath their pillows while they slept’
Grace did not mind the belongings stolen, but was more concerned with the safety and emotional wellbeing of her children. This was the third time she had been broken into, and this was the final straw. After being denied working the day shift, it became clear that it was either work or her children.
“I chose my kids.”
She resigned and started making and selling fruit salads, muffins and scones. During that time, she noticed that in Nyanga there was a lack of health-conscious food outlets. Food vendors often didn't care about the amount and nutritional value of the ingredients they used. She realized what she needed to do next, she was going to change the game.
“If I use an ingredient, I make sure to know what is on the label. Making sure there is less fat and it's healthy. I sourced my vegetables locally. I started bringing more variety of vegetables to my menu at a time when most food vendors had starch and meat-based menus. “
Dila’s Corner was officially born in 2016. At first it was tough, the prevailing mindset in the community was that healthy foods were a luxury for well-off people; “for white people” as she put it. She had to change this mindset, educate and convince them of the benefits of changing their eating habits and choosing healthy food. At first this change was met with resistance and customers reacted rudely but she persisted.
“I told myself I wouldn’t give up; I would educate more people about the benefits of eating healthy.”
Slowly the business grew and in 2017 a catering branch of the business was established. This side has since become very successful.
What were they key lessons you’ve learnt so far?
‘Resilience is key. The early days were tough, I even had customers who ordered, ate only the meat and returned the plates saying they did not like the food and would not pay. I gave them their money back with a smile. You need to be humble and kind to customers even when it’s discouraging. Another one is networking - always keep asking questions and looking for help.’
Where would you like your business to be in the next 5 years?
‘My vision is geared towards the townships. I want a Dila’s Corner in every corner of the township and I want to work with and employ young people.’