The Slutty Vegan, a plant-based burger joint in Atlanta’s West End, a predominantly African American neighborhood, opened to immediate acclaim in the summer of 2018. The restaurant instantly became a national phenomenon and celebrity hotspot, with the fervor of its fans exceeding what proprietor, Pinky Cole, in spite of her existing entrepreneurial chops, had expected. (“I’m still getting used to it, Micah; Before Slutty Vegan, I could leave the house in sneakers and a hoodie. Now, I always need to be prepared, because people are recognizing me when I take out the trash.”
Rallying to the situation, Pinky and her team, who are predominantly African American, although not always from the West End (“most of our recent hires have been via Instagram”), have expanded the operation in multiple ways, including bottling Pinky’s original sauces and opening pop-up restaurants nationally within existing minority-owned businesses. Next up for Pinky? Opening a second location in Atlanta and launching her own Slutty Vegan Bacon Strips “in a grocery store near you.”
Micah Solomon: First question has to be the origin of the name.
Pinky Cole, Founder and Proprietor, The Slutty Vegan: The Slutty Vegan was born in my two bedroom apartment in July 2018. I was hungry and wanted some vegan junk food and, in pure lightbulb style, the name came to me. A Slutty Vegan, to my mind, is someone who eats vegan but enjoys junk food—as long as it’s not dead. I knew the name would be a great hook to help people to reimagine food. What I didn’t know was how much of an impact it would make.
Solomon: Tell me about some cringeworthy times when someone got the wrong idea about the name–or about the naughtily named menu items you offer.
Cole: It’s always interesting to watch the most conservative people asking for “One Night Stands.” They try to whisper it so nobody can hear them! I remember one time when a woman was talking about ordering a “Ménage à Trois” burger, and her husband chimed in, “ I want a ménage trois too.” The dead stare the woman gave to her husband let us know that Slutty Vegan was not the best place for feuding couples. Eek!
Solomon: Beyond the playful name, what else is unique about your restaurant?
Cole: The Slutty Vegan is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. When you walk through the door, you can tell right away that the entire atmosphere is a vibe. Even in line, people are talking about veganism and networking, and you may just snag a few numbers to continue the conversation. Some days, we may be blasting Top 40, other days, Biggie and culture reggae. Above all, it feels like a party, and all of the employees are upbeat and happy to serve.
Solomon: How have you adapted to such quick success?
Cole: I’m still adapting! It’s an amazing feeling to know how much genuine support my company is getting, and my bank account doesn’t mind the show of support either.
Solomon: Do you have a team of advisors, formal or otherwise, who keep you on an even keel?
Cole: I have a core of advisors who help me stay the course in and outside of the business. My manager, Chaka Zulu, is always coaching me on how to grow as a brand to make sure that every decision I make in the business is a sound one. Stacey Lee, another one of my advisors and the Slutty Vegan tour manager, is my sorority sister. She’s like a big sister who pushes me to always dream bigger. My general manager, Larry, and my store manager, Miesha, are my work husband and wife who treat the business as their own. They are my watchdogs and keep me uplifted whenever my entrepreneur anxiety kicks in. My assistant, Angel, is exactly that to me, an angel. She supports me in my everyday roles, and I need her like peanut butter needs jelly. She keeps all the business affairs in good and working order.
Solomon: Tell me about the decision to open your restaurant in the West End community.
Cole: The decision to open our flagship location in the West End Atlanta area was a no-brainer. The first mission of Slutty Vegan has been to change the narrative on vegan foods, especially in under-informed communities. The West End was the perfect community in which to start. This neighborhood and I go way back, and bringing vegan options and food awareness to this community for which I care so deeply has been one of my life’s dreams. Opening the conversation on vegan food options for people who have never considered them in this community that has such high numbers in hypertension, cholesterol, obesity, and a host of other food-borne ailments, is momentous. I am humbled daily by the weight of the opportunity, and I’m motivated by its seriousness.
Solomon: I’m a consultant on customer service. Tell me one or two of your thoughts on this subject.
Cole: There’s no way to have a thriving business without good customer service. When I created Slutty Vegan, I wanted to be sure that the customer experience was at the top of the list. The people who patronize my restaurant are the reasons the doors stay open and employees get paid. They deserve to be treated like royalty. We don’t play about customer satisfaction. I don’t want an unhappy dollar.
Solomon: Tell me about your background and how it brought you here.
Cole: I was born to immigrant parents in Baltimore, Maryland. My father was sentenced to life in prison the day I was born. I grew up watching my mother work multiple jobs and learning about business through prison calls from my father. It was very complex but I learned a lot about life. I grew up as a party promoter and even sold McDonald’s McChickens during my lunch break at school.
After high school, I went to Clark Atlanta University, which was the best decision of my life. From there I moved to Los Angeles where I stumbled into a career in the television industry that led me to New York and opening a Jamaican Restaurant called Pinky’s in 2014.
Due to a grease fire, I had to walk away from everything in 2016 and went broke. Fortunately I got a call to work on a show on the OWN network and built myself back up after the loss. In July of 2018 I came up with a crazy idea to open up the restaurant that the world now knows as Slutty Vegan. To this day, I still don’t know exactly how I got here, but the universe has been beyond good to me and I don’t take any of it for granted.
Solomon: For the benefit of my readers who are entrepreneurs: Do you mind sharing a mistake you made along the way, how you overcame it, and what you learned from it?
Cole: How about this one, from right at the beginning! In the first month of Slutty Vegan, I didn’t pay my taxes! Not that I didn’t want to, but I thought I could put it on hold until money starting coming in. That changed quickly after I got a call from the IRS like “Um hello, Pinky, where’s our money?” How I overcame this? I paid my bills! That moment was crucial as an entrepreneur because it pushed me to be responsible, in terms of getting my finances in order, and I’ve never looked back since.
Solomon: Do you have an overriding philosophy? If so, I’d love to hear it.
Cole: Don’t be afraid of sh*t. I’m not afraid of anything. People love authenticity, so when you can always be yourself in the most purest form you get a lot further in life. It does, however, take a certain level of bravery to have that mentality.
Solomon: Tell me what the future looks like.
Cole: The future looks amazing. Book, book tour, reality show, truck tour. Adding a few more locations. Pinch me please. Whatever the case, I just want to keep growing and glowing with my Shea butter and all this Slutty success.
Solomon: Before I leave you be, what do you wish I had asked you?
Cole: If I had a boyfriend. Even though the answer is no, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.
Solomon: This article will put out the word, Pinky, on your single status–at least to the business types who read my stuff. My only concern is whether they can keep up with you…