To say Slutty Vegan is a cultural phenomenon is an understatement. When Aisha ‘Pinky’ Cole thought of the concept for the restaurant, she anticipated its success, but didn’t know it would morph into Atlanta’s go-to establishment for vegan fast food with national name recognition so quickly. Nor did the Clark Atlanta University (CAU) alum anticipate her establishment would not only survive the coronavirus pandemic, but flourish in it. Here are 10 things to know about Atlanta’s Slutty Vegan restaurant’s explosive growth.
Cole thought of the concept for Slutty Vegan in 2018 after craving vegan comfort food and being unable to find any in Atlanta. So, she did what any CAU alum would do because it’s ingrained in their brains: “Find a Way or Make One.” Invoking the motto of her alma mater, Cole decided to make her own vegan comfort food and the idea for Slutty Vegan was born.
“I was sitting in the house one day and I came up with this idea of Slutty Vegan. It came to me like a light bulb. [The name] was sexy. It sounds like it’s selling sex, but it’s bigger than that. [I knew] it was going to become a movement; it’s going to get people to pay attention to being plant-based and veganism,” Cole told XO Necole.
Within three months of launching, Cole had wraparound lines at Slutty Vegan daily. Her business rakes in millions in revenue and has also become a notable tourist attraction and ‘must-stop’ site for those visiting Atlanta.
“We’re a 100-percent plant-based burger joint where we really help people to reimagine food. … It’s so special because now it’s a staple in the community,” Cole said.
Never shy to share her journey, Cole said she began Slutty Vegan in a shared kitchen space. She then launched her food truck – which she intentionally moves to a new location every day. Finally, Cole said, after convincing a landlord in one of Atlanta’s historically Black communities to give her a chance, she secured retail space.
“He was very skeptical about giving me a chance because at the time my business was only about three months old,” Cole told Thrillist. “But he realized how long my lines were and how many people were coming to my establishment. And I’m happy he gave me an opportunity when nobody else in the city was willing to retail me any space.”
Cole has since opened two additional brick and mortar locations, in Edgewood and Jonesboro, respectively. She also has a second food truck.
“I went from cooking outside of a shared kitchen, to having a food truck to now having four locations,” Cole said. “We’ve been able to give people an opportunity and a safe space to be all they want to be.”
Of Slutty Vegan’s first location on Ralph Davis Abernathy, Cole said, “Slutty Vegan’s location is going to be there until my last breath, because it has brought so many people together.”
While many restaurants shut down or struggled to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, Slutty Vegan did the opposite. It flourished. Cole opened the aforementioned locations during the pandemic. She said the company has done more business in the last year than ever.
“During the pandemic I wasn’t sure. I had the mayor saying stay in the house and the governor saying you can still go outside just wear a mask,” Cole told CNN Business. “As a socially responsible entrepreneur I knew I had to make a decision so I closed my business for two weeks and when we reopened I have done the most business that I’ve ever done in this business.”
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement due to the unprecedented spotlight on racial injustice in 2020 also added to the success of Slutty Vegan, according to Cole.
“People are really now wanting to support small businesses more than ever. We noticed that we just got an influx of people wanting to support small, Black-owned, women-owned businesses,” Cole said.
With its runaway success, Slutty Vegan plans to continue expanding. In doing so, the company intentionally moves into areas that are either food deserts and/or underserved communities. When Cole signed the $1.4 million deal to open a new headquarters in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood, she expressed the significance of being in that particular community.
“We are thrilled to move into the historic Edgewood District of Atlanta,” Cole said in a news release. “Edgewood is the exact neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and with his birth home being located directly behind Slutty Vegan, I know he has my back. It’s a true blessing to continue opening new locations when there are so many other small businesses whose doors have closed during the global pandemic. I want to empower those business owners to never give up on their dreams and continue to fight for what they love and what I know they too can accomplish.”
Though there are other vegan restaurants in Atlanta, Cole said the experience Slutty Vegan provides sets it apart. In addition to the salacious names of the brand and its cuisine, eating at Slutty Vegan is fun. When “virgins” enter the building (the name the company calls first time customers), they are greeting with singing, dancing and an exuberant welcome.
“We have amazing vegan restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia but I tagged on an experience to it to help people reimagine food,” Cole said, noting the creative naming of her business also contributes to its success. “If I would have named it Pinky’s Vegan, I probably wouldn’t have had lines out the door.”
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Slutty Vegan’s Chief Revenue Officer Jason Crain echoed Cole’s sentiments.
“It’s like going to Disney world or going to a concert,” Crain said. “We bring the talent to you, the talent is entertaining, they’re going to engage you, you’re going to eat well, and you’re going to feel fulfilled after you leave our establishments.”
Tiffany Haddish, Common, Tyler Perry, Gabrielle Union, Colin Kaepernick, Megan Thee Stallion, Usher, Lena Waithe, Shaq and Da Brat are just a few of the celebrities who have publicly endorsed Slutty Vegan. Cole said it is an organic phenomenon because she does not hire influencers.
“Celebrities love Slutty Vegan. I’ve never had to pay anybody to endorse my brand. People are just so supportive of the brand that they want to be a part of it,” Cole said. “We’ve been able to infuse veganism and the food into the culture.”
While Cole knows her innovative branding and unique customer experience have helped her restaurant become a multi-million dollar enterprise, she also credits the company’s philanthropy and community involvement with helping raise Slutty Vegan’s profile.
“While the people are pouring into you, you have to pour back into the people. People will continue to support you if they see you are supporting the community,” Cole said. “One of the reasons why Slutty Vegan is so successful is because you see a Black-owned, woman-owned business really lifting people up. We bring people together in the name of food and in the name of entrepreneurship and whatever the need is in the community, we help and we give back.”
Through her namesake Pinky Cole Foundation, Cole works to help bridge the generational wealth gap. It is a core part of her mission.
Though Slutty Vegan has been wildly successful in Atlanta, Cole and her team have no plans of slowing down. The company has expansion plans to open 13 additional locations in other cities over the next year-and-a-half.
“We are about to branch out outside of Atlanta and have Slutty Vegans everywhere,” Cole said.
Crain – who told CNN Business their revenue has increased over 100 percent within the last year – believes despite the risks of leaving their local market, this is the right time to pursue growth.
“We want to make sure that we’re not making it easier for our competitors and others to enter this space,” Crain said. “It really boils down to striking while the iron is hot.”
Cole is also planning for the opening of a restaurant called Bar Vegan in Ponce City Market.
Cole is being recognized for her business acumen and philanthropic efforts by a variety of sources. One of the most recent is Nation’s Restaurant News as she was named to its 2021 Power List.
According to the Atlanta Business Journal (ABJ), the list recognizes “industry leaders who are not only setting trends today, but also shaping them for tomorrow.” The list recognizes “25 restaurant leaders whose keen leadership helped their organizations navigate the COVID crisis.”
Cole was selected because she “is building an empire in Atlanta” and helping others while doing it. The ABJ wrote Cole’s foundation “‘paid the rent of local Atlanta businesses in danger of closing during the pandemic,’ and she partnered with Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks owner Derrick Hayes ‘to give the family of Rayshard Brooks — the 27-year-old Black man who was shot by police in the drive-thru of an Atlanta Wendy’s in June — a car, college scholarships for his children and life insurance policies.’”
“Vegan for over a decade, Cole recognizes that veganism is mostly associated with wealthy, white people,” Nation’s Restaurant News wrote. “Offering menu items with names like ‘Sloppy Toppy,’ ‘One Night Stand,’ ‘Ménage à Trois’ and ‘Hollywood Hooker,’ the concept’s goal is to make plant-based dishes more accessible — and, fundamentally, to break down barriers.”
Though she is being heralded for her genius and generosity, Cole believes others can be just as successful as she is. She uses her resources to encourage them so she is not at the top alone.
“If you have a great idea, a lot of faith and are steadfast on your goals, it doesn’t take five years to [launch]. You can do what I did in six months and it can be super [successful]. It depends on how bad you want to win,” Cole said.