Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole wants her $100-million chain to rival Burger King
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Citi CEO Jane Fraser shares why empathy is a competitive advantage for the bank; the pandemic’s impact on motherhood hit poor women harder than their rich peers; and Pinky Cole has big ambitions for Slutty Vegan.
Getting slutty Growing up in Baltimore, Pinky Cole looked up to those who had found success in music and entertainment. That reverence led her to a career as a television producer in Atlanta—until she was laid off. Cole reflected on her career choice and swiftly realized that the entertainment industry shouldn’t have a monopoly on who receives acclaim and attention.
Four years ago, she founded the Atlanta-based restaurant chain Slutty Vegan, heralded for its burgers and fries, nondidactic approach to the vegan diet, and enthusiastic point of view. The chain was valued at $100 million earlier this year after a $25 million investment from a group that included Union Square Hospitality and Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer. “Once upon a time, it was probably not that cool to be a restaurateur,” Cole says. “But now it’s cool to be a restaurateur. It’s cool to be an entrepreneur, have a business, and be scaling it.”
And Cole is indeed scaling. Slutty Vegan opened its eighth location earlier this fall in Brooklyn, its first outside the South (most are in Georgia). The chain plans to open a Harlem location soon. “I want Slutty Vegan to be a household name just like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Chick-fil-A,” Cole says.
With backing from some of the top names in the restaurant industry, Cole is in strategizing mode, recently pivoting from a plan to open a location in each major market to launching multiple restaurants in particularly strong markets. The shift allows the chain to save on food costs by ordering ingredients for multiple storefronts to one city, rather than across the country.
Cole says the best fit for a Slutty Vegan location is in neighborhoods that are either food deserts, vegan food deserts, or “an area in the middle of gentrification,” hence the move to Brooklyn and Harlem selections. The ideal customer in those areas is “a graduate or college student who has a good career but still likes to be ratchet on the weekend,” she adds. “They can turn it on and be professional in a board meeting but still like to get loose and have fun with their friends.”
That’s partly because of Slutty Vegan’s branding. Workers yell out that customers are getting “sluttified” and sell merch that says “Big Slut Energy.”
Cole can’t quite pinpoint what makes the restaurant successful. Is it her or the chain’s atmosphere? “Some days, I feel like people love Slutty Vegan because they love me. But some days, I think maybe it’s that I’m a community-based business,” she says. Either way, she credits the city of Atlanta for much of the chain’s success. “There is a mecca of successful, African American, wealthy individuals who live in the city and are willing to support someone who is moving and shaking,” she says.
Cole, whose given name is Aisha (Pinky is a nickname), is simultaneously working to build her personal brand. Earlier this month, she published a cookbook called Eat Plants, B*tch and hopes to eventually have at least three Slutty Vegan locations in each U.S. state.
“We’re in your face, raunchy, and sophisticated at the same time,” she says. “I’m creating opportunities for myself and my company.”
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