The Unstoppable Pinky Cole
Vegetarian Times Restaurateur of the Year and Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole has built a burger empire while continually giving back to her community – and she's not anywhere near done
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It was as if Pinky Cole, the entrepreneur, restaurateur, philanthropist, and CEO of Slutty Vegan and Bar Vegan, had been preparing for the marathon of her life.
“I was running five miles a day, reading a book a day, and I just knew that I was getting ready to do something,” Cole tells me. “I was in a space where I knew something big was about to happen, but I didn’t know what it was.”
One day amidst her search for that something, she found herself sitting on her then-boyfriend’s couch in Atlanta. Though she says she’s not a smoker, she took a hit of his blunt — and, then, she recalls, the idea struck like a lightning bolt. In that moment, Slutty Vegan was born.
Just weeks after what Cole now refers to as “the blunt worth 100 million dollars,” she kicked off the marathon preparing burgers and fries out of a rental commercial kitchen in Atlanta, Georgia, using delivery apps to get her vision out into people’s hands in July of 2018.
She didn’t have burgers growing up, which is why she says the build is backwards, with a base of lettuce and tomato instead of a patty. Her burgers, which combine sweet, spicy, and tangy flavors on a Hawaiian bun, became a certified home-run, and that October, the first brick-and-mortar Slutty Vegan opened in Atlanta.
Now there are eight locations and more coming soon, spread across multiple states. And when the latest Slutty Vegan opened in Brooklyn, Eater reported it was greeted with hours-long lines and a block party that shut down a chunk of Fort Greene.
She pauses to reflect back on her start. “Damn, I really grew a multimillion dollar business not knowing what the hell I was doing, literally,” she says, smiling. “Like, half the time, I don’t know what I’m doing, and it works.”
How well it all works is a testament to Cole’s tenacity, and the degree of trust she has in herself and in the universe to carry her visions from brainstorm to reality. “I have a lot of self confidence,” she confirms. “And I believe that my mouthpiece, more than the food, will take this business to the billion dollar mark.”
After putting an acting dream on pause, Cole worked in television for years as a producer and casting director. At the same time, she launched her first endeavor in food: a Jamaican restaurant in Harlem, New York that spoke to her Jamaican heritage.
But as someone who grew up with a Rastafarian mother, and on a partly vegetarian and holistic diet, her heart wasn’t fully in the restaurant. She’s never eaten pork, and stopped eating beef at 13. “What I realized is that when I had that restaurant, while it was good, and people had a good experience, it was fake. It was fake, because I was lying to the people. And I realized that you’ll never go far when you lie to the people,” reflects Cole.
In 2014, her life changed again, and she hasn’t looked back since: she went vegan from one day to the next, and locked her iconic red hair in the same breath, intertwining both journeys.
The experience owning her Jamaican restaurant shaped how she approaches Slutty Vegan. Cole says it’s because it’s authentic to who she is.
“Why would I sell something that I don’t eat, right? The reason why Slutty Vegan works is because I am really vegan, I like my friends to eat vegan, and I want to see their reaction.”
Cole’s Jamaican Restaurant closed after a devastating kitchen fire in 2016. But next month, she’ll open a Slutty Vegan in Harlem, just blocks away from where it once stood. It’s a full-circle moment for her.
Another full-circle moment, she shares, is the start of The Pinky Cole Foundation founded in 2019 that focuses on “empowering generations of color to win in life, financially, and in the pursuit of their entrepreneurial dreams.” Her first action was gifting a mother of four children at the time, a car and toys for her family. Recently after four years she saw the woman again, causing her to reflect on her start with the foundation. “I know I made her life a lot easier,” she says. Since then the foundation has taken off, “we’ve done so much,” she acknowledges. “We paid the rent of local businesses, we’ve cleared balances of college students so that they can graduate, we have given out fruits and vegetables, we pay for haircuts, we’ve donated computers, I can go on and on and on.”
Most recently, the foundation partnered with Vero bank to establish LLC corporations for every 2022 graduate of Clark Atlanta University, a historically Black institution. “What I encouraged them is to use these LLC’s to be able to build the dream that you want,” Cole explains. “It was really so people can start to learn financial literacy and be a resource in the community for people who want to learn about business. It gets deep.”
Next on Cole’s plate is her first cookbook, Eat Plants, B*tch! Now available for pre-order, this collection is brimming with plant-based recipes like her black pea cauliflower po’ boy and oyster mushroom parm –– targeted for the meat-eater’s kitchen.
“The vegans already got it figured out, right? I don’t have to persuade them to add in more vegan options to their menu,” she explains. “I got to talk to the people just eating pork rinds and pork and beef and chicken. Those are the people I need to tap into. Because if I can get them to shift their mindset, then the race has been won.”
In true Pinky fashion, instead of the typical bookshop signings, the “Pinky Cole Experience Tour” will stop at theaters and venues across the country — rooms with capacities well over 1,000 people — for food demonstrations, musical performances, talks by Cole and her collaborators, and surprise appearances by some of Slutty Vegan’s many celebrity fans.
As Cole gears up for a book tour set to kick off November 14th in New York, this mother of two continues her marathon, unlocking a new epoch.
“This chapter in my life is called unstoppable. Because there ain’t nothing I can’t do.”
READ ALL RESTAURANT STORIES FROM VEGETARIAN TIMES
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