Within the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 100,000 restaurants in the United States either permanently closed or shut down for the foreseeable future, leaving nearly 3 million workers unemployed, according to the National Restaurant Association. Amid all the industry tumult, a vegan joint in Atlanta has not only stayed afloat but is having its best year ever.
Founded in 2018 by TV exec turned restauranteur Pinky Cole, Slutty Vegan has become one of Atlanta’s buzziest eateries with its saucy take on vegan fast food, attracting celebrity customers including Tiffany Haddish, Tyler Perry, Taraji P. Henson, Megan Thee Stallion, and Woody Harrelson.
When the pandemic first hit, Slutty Vegan shut down for two weeks in March, but to Cole it was the unexpected downtime she needed to retool a strategy for growth. She hired the company’s first C-suite. She pushed forward in opening two new locations in Atlanta, growing overall revenue by 15%. She secured a book and movie deal (which Cole calls a modern-day Good Burger), and is developing a line of vegan snack foods for kids slated to hit shelves in 2021—and all that’s just on the profit side of the business.
Through her nonprofit the Pinky Cole Foundation, Cole paid the rent of local Atlanta businesses so they wouldn’t shutter during the pandemic. In collaboration with Derrick Hayes, owner of Atlanta restaurant Big Dave’s Cheesecake, Cole gifted a car, college scholarships, and life insurance policies to the widow and kids of Rayshard Brooks, the 27-year-old Black man shot to death by an Atlanta police officer in June. Cole also partnered with Impossible Foods for a voter registration initiative in the run-up to the most recent election.
“I just thought it was going to be something dope and cool to do,” Cole says of starting Slutty Vegan. “And here we are, two years later: I have one of the hottest concepts in the country. I’m thriving in a pandemic. I’ve been able to help my community in which I serve and give people hope that you can really create a business and it could be bigger than you’ve ever imagined.”
A dream deferred . . . and burned
Cole calls her entrée into the restaurant an accident.
On the very day she was born in Baltimore to Jamaican immigrant parents, Cole’s father was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for his involvement in a drug ring.
“The family dynamic changed the minute that I walked into earth,” says Cole, who’s 33. “My mother would work about three to four jobs, so my grandmother would watch me. And living in a household with a Jamaican grandparent is a lot different from just the average American grandparent.”
From a young age, Cole was learning how to clean, properly crease bedsheets, and, of course, cook.
“I learned about food and how food can bring people together. When my grandmother would cook, everybody would come together as a way of fellowship,” Cole says. “I carried that throughout the years.”
By her teens, Cole was already turning her passion into profit by catering parties and selling sandwiches at school. After graduating from Clark Atlanta University, Cole decided to pursue a career in entertainment, first as an actor in Los Angeles and then in TV production in New York City. All the while, though, the food business wasn’t far from her thoughts.
“Something clicked. I was like, ‘I want to open up a business,'” Cole says. “I had my 401(k) saved. And one of my friends who had a restaurant at the time said that there was a restaurant available for lease [in Harlem].”
Cole turned that spot into a Jamaican restaurant serving island staples such as jerk chicken and oxtail, even though she herself was vegan.
“I was selling a product that I didn’t believe in,” Cole says.
Despite her personal conflicts, Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant became a local favorite for two years—until a grease fire burned everything to the ground in 2016. On top of that, Cole says she made the rookie mistake of not having the right insurance policy. Left with nothing, she decided to go back into TV with a gig as a casting director for Iyanla, Fix My Life, which films in Georgia.
“One day, I was sitting in the house, coming up with my ideas as normal, and it hit me: Slutty Vegan,” Cole says. “I was solving a problem, because there was no late-night vegan food in Atlanta.”
If you think Cole perpetually tumbles into restaurant businesses with little more than her love for cooking, she’d readily agree with you.
“Everything that I’ve ever done, I have never had a plan,” she admits. “I just did it.”
Cole attributes that drive to not only her mom, who was working several jobs to support the family, but her dad as well, who gave Cole business advice from behind bars.
“My father is a genius. And being a genius, sometimes you don’t make the best decisions because you are so committed to a goal,” Cole says. “I got two really good examples of parents that were committed to taking care of their family. And because of that, it showed me how to be a boss. It showed me how to level up. It showed me how to not wait on somebody to give me an opportunity but instead go out and get the opportunity my goddamn self.”
And in the new opportunity of Slutty Vegan, Cole wanted to make sure her values as a vegan were in line with the business.
“I realized I wasn’t living in my authentic truth [with Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant],” Cole says. “I wanted to do something that was a reflection of who I was, who Pinky Cole is as somebody who loves to cook and get people to see food in a different way.”
Making veganism fun . . . and Black
There’s been a long-held cultural perception that veganism is mainly for white and often affluent people.
But statistics say otherwise.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, African-Americans are the fastest growing vegan demographic in the United States. Cole has capitalized on that trajectory by making vegan food more accessible as comfort food.
“The reality of it is roughly about 97% of the people who come to Slutty Vegan are meat eaters,” says Cole of her largely Black customer base. “We’re not pushing the agenda on you that you have to stop eating meat. We just want you to open up your consciousness and be able to introduce new items into your lifestyle.
“My mission is not to tell people that you’re going to go to hell if you’re not vegan,” she adds. “My mission is to get people to understand that all it takes is one step. And you’re halfway there.”
Breaking down those barriers obviously extends to the name of the company and its menu that includes items like “Sloppy Toppy,” “One Night Stand,” “Ménage à Trois,” and “Hollywood Hooker.”
“When we talk about the impact that’s been made in the South, to have people lined down the fucking block every single day? I got three locations right now and have a line down a block every day that tells me that obviously we’re doing something right,” Cole says. “We’ve been able to show people that veganism can be fun.”
And Cole has shown herself how important it is to align yourself accordingly with your brand.
“It feels good to be able to walk in my purpose through this business, and I know that it’s my purpose because everything is coming the way that I want it—doing partnerships, my foundation, being able to open up all these restaurants in the middle of a pandemic,” Cole says. “So many people naturally support this business because it’s authentically in alignment to who I am. And that’s why the business has been successful.”