Pinky Cole’s Jamaican-American restaurant in New York City’s Harlem went up in fire in 2016.
The restaurant was destroyed by a grease fire. Cole claims that her lack of expertise as an entrepreneur was the final nail in her coffin. The fire damage wasn’t covered by sufficient insurance, so she was left sifting through the ruins of a failed business endeavor, attempting to figure out what went wrong and, more importantly, how she could fix things next time.
Six years can make such a difference. The 34-year-old is now a cookbook author, philanthropist, and the proprietor of Slutty Vegan, a popular vegan hamburger franchise in Atlanta that started in 2018. With that bold name, a dynamic ambiance, and an ethos that taps into Atlanta’s deep Black cultural connections, the restaurant’s four locations draw long lines and a loyal following — vegans and meat-eaters alike.
Its popularity stems from Cole’s efforts, through her nonprofit, the Pinky Cole Foundation, to give back to the city’s Black population. When you put it all together, she says, people come to Slutty Vegan for the food, the community, and Cole himself.
“I’m a young, Black woman who’s movin’ and shakin’, and has a story of tribulation and triumph… People appreciate that. And people can see themselves in me,” Cole stated.
Pinky Cole wants Slutty Vegan to become a billion-dollar brand in the next three years. It’ll require a lot of effort: According to a CNBC Make It estimate, Slutty Vegan produced between $10 million and $14 million in revenue in 2021, and most billion-dollar businesses make at least $100 million in yearly revenue. (Cole wouldn’t say how much Slutty Vegan makes in a year.)
Nonetheless, she exudes self-assurance. “You’ve got a great story. You’ve got great food… Why wouldn’t people want to support that?”
A Vegan Party
Pinky Cole, a Baltimore native, claims she’s always been a “hustler,” a trait she acquired from her father, who spent more than two decades in prison for his role in a Baltimore narcotics operation around the time she was born. “It wasn’t legal,” Cole adds, “but he was a big-time entrepreneur.”
Cole needed some time to figure out how she could realize her dream of running a billion-dollar company. Cole, a professional television producer who cashed up her 401K and borrowed money from a family friend to launch her New York City cafe in 2014, returned to the industry for more than two years after the fire as a producer and casting director.
By 2018, she had relocated to Atlanta and was ready to try again. She’s been a vegan for about a decade, and the moniker “Slutty Vegan” came to her like a “bolt from the blue.” It’s designed to combat the stereotype that vegan food is stodgy or dull, so it’s purposely snarky and provocative.
Slutty Vegan operated as a side business in a shared commercial kitchen for four months, until Cole was sacked from her day job for focusing too much on her new venture, she claims. She went on to open a food truck and, in January 2019, her first brick-and-mortar restaurant. She’d created a cult following by then: 1,200 people turned up on opening day for the 635-square-foot restaurant.
Customers who might not normally try vegan food are drawn in by the word “Slutty” on the entrance, as well as menu items like the Fussy Hussy plant-based burger and the Skinny Dipper fried pickles. With loud music and brightly colored graffiti on the walls, the interior aesthetic creates a party-like environment.
“I wanted to negate all these notions that only certain kinds of people can eat vegan food… The audience is the meat-eater. I love when … they’re pleasantly surprised,” Cole said.
A Community ‘Hustler’
Cole, who gave birth to a daughter last summer with her partner and fellow entrepreneur Derrick Hayes, frequently discusses how Slutty Vegan can help her family and others in the Black community build generational wealth.
“When we talk about real generational wealth, they don’t teach us that growing up… They don’t teach us about business and financial literacy, especially not where I came from,” Cole said.
Cole established the Pinky Cole Foundation in 2019 with the goal of fostering economic growth and financial awareness in underserved communities of color. Cole and Slutty Vegan’s organization has paid off student loans and supported scholarships at Cole’s alma school, Clark Atlanta University, created scholarships for Atlanta’s juvenile offenders, and gave thousands of pounds of produce to Atlanta’s food poor community.
Cole also partnered with Clark Atlanta to donate $600,000 to scholarships for Rayshard Brooks’ four children, who were shot and killed by police in Atlanta in 2020.
Of course, her personal aim of producing generational wealth through the ownership of a billion-dollar company is a long way off by any sensible criterion. Cole has done well so far, according to Joe Pawlak, managing principal at foodservice sector research and consulting firm Technomic, but he’s “skeptical” that a billion-dollar valuation is on the horizon.
According to Pawlak, it takes “a number of years to establish the number of locations needed and following to get to that level.” Cole’s company is now trailing larger fast-casual vegan and vegetarian competitors, such as Santa Monica-based vegan chain Veggie Grill, which has 31 locations across five states.
Cole, meantime, intends to expand, starting in the southeast and then heading north, according to her. She told Essence in January that she hopes to be able to open a Slutty Vegan in a different U.S. city every month. The difficulties, according to Pawlak, will be regularly interacting with clients in new places and converting non-vegans.
It appears that converting meat eaters is possible. The social side will be more difficult. Cole admits that her expansion plans rely on reproducing Slutty Vegan’s unique relationship with Atlanta in other cities, which might take an inordinate amount of time, energy, and resources.
Don’t tell her it’s impossible, though. Cole says, “I already have a billion-dollar brand… The billion dollars just ain’t in the bank yet.”
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