Pinky Cole: The New American Dream

THE vegan burger queen built a $100 million food empire in five years


By Selena Hill | Cover Photo: Will Sterling

“Ay yo, slutty gang! We got a slut entering the building!” yelled Renea Jackson as I walked into Slutty Vegan in Edgewood, Atlanta, on a quiet rainy night in January.


The boisterous greeting marked the first – and only – time that I’ve been called a “slut” inside of an establishment. But the feeling was different. The energy inside of the famed fast-food vegan restaurant was palpable. Trap music blared from the speakers, and I was immediately captivated by bright graphic signs and phrases plastered on the walls. “Play with me” read one, while a “phone-a-slut” neon sign hung over a makeshift phonebooth. Looking up, I tried to decode what the words “Drink Tuh Fuh Cup” meant on the giant soda cups hanging from the ceiling. Meanwhile, I watched a few seconds of Slutty Vegan employees dancing and playing double Dutch
on a video screen.

Slutty Vegan In Edgewood, ATLANTA, GA

“Is this your first time visiting Slutty Vegan?” Jackson asked enthusiastically when I approached the counter.


“Yes,” I replied.



“Where are you from?” she continued. 


After telling her I was visiting from New York, she ecstatically yelled, “We got a virgin in the building from New York! Everybody say, ‘what up, virgin!’”



Without missing a beat, a handful of staff workers (the slutty gang) responded with loud cheers, chanting, and banging. Feeling the infectious energy, I, too, became excited about “popping my cherry” as a first-time patron. I ordered the popular “One Night Stand” – a vegan patty with vegan bacon and cheese topped with lettuce, tomato, and caramelized onions on a Hawaiian bun. I was “sluttified” by the first bite and quickly realized why vegetarians and meat-eaters alike rave about the fast-casual chain.



Greeting each customer with the “slut call” and a raucous welcome is part of the unique experience that sets Slutty Vegan apart from the average eatery. The concept was engineered by Slutty Vegan founder and CEO Aisha “Pinky” Cole to get people excited about eating plant-based food. The raunchy approach to veganism speaks to Cole’s remarkable acumen for unconventional marketing, which, in turn, has catapulted Slutty Vegan into an $100 million food empire and positioned the 35-year-old founder as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of her time.




Known for its attention-grabbing name, bold flavor, and “big slut energy,” Slutty Vegan has attracted a cult-like following within a few short years. Celebrities like Tyler Perry, Taraji P. Henson, Queen Latifah, and Migos rapper Offset have gushed about the signature vegan patties, while customers routinely wait on round-the-block lines to get a taste.


Cole, a native of East Baltimore, Maryland, conceptualized the idea for the meatless burger joint back in 2018. She was working in Atlanta as a television producer on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network when she had a late-night fast-food craving. But, as a vegan, she didn’t want to simply settle for fries and a side salad.


“I was sitting in my bedroom in Atlanta,” she told BLACK ENTERPRISE. “I came up with Slutty Vegan out of nowhere. It hit me like a light bulb.”


Cole immediately knew she had hit the jackpot by creating a brand that combines two of the most pleasurable human experiences – sex and food. Plus, after producing The Maury Show, a long-running talk show infamous for paternity scandals and drama, she understood the power of racy marketing.


“Sex sells,” she said unapologetically. “There’s other burger and fry joints in Atlanta and in America, but I’m disruptive.”


Getting people uncomfortable and intrigued was not only clever, but it has helped rebrand veganism from an earnest and restrictive diet to a playful and enticing lifestyle.


“I’m saying, ‘hey, come party with me. Come and have fun with me.’ And then you’ll see what the other side is like. And then you’ll look up and realize, oh, this isn’t so bad. I can be vegan,” she says. “That’s always been my messaging. And as long as I continue to do that, I believe that I’ll get more people that get excited about being plant-based.”




Long before famous figures ever took a bite of a Slutty Vegan burger, Cole was throwing sold-out parties in Baltimore as a teenager in the early 2000s. Back then, the restaurant mogul was simply known as “Pinky,” a nickname that her godmother gave her because of her pink completion as a newborn. Her success as a popular local party promoter, however, foreshadowed her apt ability to attract large crowds.


The daughter of Jamaican parents, Cole grew up in a primarily vegetarian household since her mother is Rastafarian and does not eat meat. She became a pescetarian as a teenager before then going vegan 10 years ago. However, her father was sentenced to life in prison on drug charges the day that she was born.

“Watching him behind bars and having to be told what to do by big ass guards and having to go through gates…wasn’t a fun experience,” she recalls.

“Even though he was in federal prison, this man was making me read books. He was encouraging me on how to be entrepreneur. His mind was free even though his body was behind bars,” she continued. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world because it taught me a lot about integrity and character and commitment, and being a risk-taker.”


Meanwhile, she learned the value of loyalty and determination by watching her mother single-handedly care for her and her siblings.

“From throwing parties to selling candy to doing hair to starting businesses, I’ve always been the person that wants to continue to rise and continue to elevate. I never get comfortable at being good enough. I always exceed the standard in everything that I do, and I got it from my dad and my mom.”


Never Get Comfortable At Being Good Enough. I Always Exceed The Standard In Everything That I Do.

Despite her hustler’s spirit and mindset, Cole aspired to be an actress. After earning a mass media and communication degree from Clark Atlanta University, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue show business. She landed a few small acting gigs but then took a job as a production assistant before being promoted to a television producer. “My career in TV continued to grow. I continued to elevate in my career and like everything really just started happening for me. And then I looked up and I'm a television producer, and I'm like, ‘Well, how did this happen?’ I never anticipated being behind the scenes because I wanted to be a star, but God has a sense of humor.”

Slutty Vegan In Edgewood, ATLANTA, GA

She moved to New York City when she started producing The Maury Show and opened her first restaurant in 2014 called Pinky's Jamaican and American Restaurant in Harlem. However, she lost everything, including her car and apartment, when the business burned down in a grease fire in 2016. “I felt like s—t,” she admitted, adding that she didn’t have fire insurance. “It felt like I was a failure at the time. And I never ever in my life felt like a failure. I was just always a go-getter.” Nevertheless, Cole says losing the restaurant was a disguised blessing that taught her to be diligent in business dealings and true to herself. “I was selling oxtails and I was selling jerk chicken and I didn't eat it. So, it didn't align with me. That's why it didn't work. But when I started to unlock who I authentically and organically was, I realized that I'm really walking true in my purpose.” Looking back, she says the fire was a hard lesson that positioned her for the exponential growth of Slutty Vegan. “It really prepared me for Slutty Vegan,” she says. “I needed that level of humility to show me that if you really want to be successful in life, you got to make sure that you cross every ‘T’ and dot every ‘I’ in everything that you do.” She added, “That first restaurant equipped me to prepare my mindset for what was to come. I'm grateful for that. And I wouldn't change it for the world. It just made me a titan.” After another stint in L.A., Cole landed her dream job as a casting director for OWN’s Iyanla Fix My Life, which brought her back to Atlanta for a few months. It was here that she started her burger business from her Atlanta apartment using Impossible and Beyond Meat products. She used Instagram to advertise a salacious menu that included cheekily named burgers like the “menage a trois” and “fussy hussy.” Her DMs were quickly flooded with orders shortly afte that. After selling four orders her very first week, her sales rapidly increased by more than seven times by the following week to 30 orders. Within months, Cole hired three employees and opened a ghost kitchen at PREP ATL, which allows restaurants to prepare food solely for delivery. “I was getting the DM money plus I was getting DoorDash and Uber Eats money. Money was coming from all different directions,” she says. “I didn't expect this. This was supposed to be like a side hustle because I wanted something [to eat one] late night.”

She quickly outgrew the facility and invested $45,000 into a food truck in August 2018 called the “Slut Mobile,” which became one of the most sought-after food trucks in Atlanta with hundreds lining up every day to experience its one-of-a-kind vegan junk meals.

“People started coming in droves. I’m talking about with their lawn chairs, with their computers, with their kids.”

That’s when she realized that her idea was bigger than burgers – she was leading a movement.

“This ain’t just about food. People want to be a part of this big experience because it’s nothing that they really ever seen before in this capacity,” she says.

Trying to balance her bustling burger business with a 9-to-5, however, eventually caught up with her. As a result, she lost focused on her job and was ultimately terminated.

“Slutty Vegan started booming. To be honest, realistically, I couldn’t handle both. Getting fire was the best thing that happened to me because had I not gotten fired, I wouldn’t have went full throttle,” she explained. It’s almost like I needed to be released so that I could fly.”

That same day, she received a late-night phone call that changed everything.

“I got a call from JD [Jermaine Dupri], and he was like, ‘hey, Snoop Dogg is here at my studio.’”
Dupri, a long-time vegan, gave Cole a heads up that he and the West Coast rap icon wanted to grab burgers from her food truck. Cole and her team immediately sprang into action to prep their meals. After enjoying the meal, Snoop Dogg shared the experience on social media, giving the meatless patty brand free publicity.

With all the momentum behind her brand, Cole opened the first Slutty Vegan brick-and-mortar location in Edgewood in January 2019, bringing out 1,200 people who stood outside for hours. That moment further affirmed that she had landed on a gold mine.

“I said ‘oh, this the one. This is the one.’”

The company grossed $4 million in revenues within the first six months of the grand opening, forcing Cole to learn how to run a multi-million-dollar company in real time.

“We had some hiccups on the operational side just like any other business does,” she says. “We had to grow with the ebbs and flows, learning how to keep more money in the bank.”

Today, Slutty Vegan has eight locations – four in Atlanta; one in Birmingham, Alabama; on in Columbus, Georgia; and one in Brooklyn, New York. The ninth location is slated to open in Harlem within the next few weeks, while the first Slutty Vegan drive-thru is scheduled to open on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta in March. Cole, who plans to open several more stores throughout the year from Baltimore to the West Coast, says her “spirit” leads her to the right area.

“I know what feels right for Slutty Vegan. Like, I know the area. It’s almost like it’s right in the middle of gentrification. And it’s an eclectic kind of area. You got white people and Black people, and it’s a vibe.”

The restaurants are strategically placed in neighborhoods that are typically on the cusp of gentrification or in a food desert. “But we know that one day it will be a thriving area, and we open up shop,” she explains.

Trusting her gut has proven to be successful, she says, noting that the Brooklyn location generated a million dollars in sales in a matter of months. Likewise, she says all of her business decisions are driven by her intuition.

“If my spirit don’t feel right, I ain’t doing it. I don’t care how much money you got [or] how many followers you got. If my spirit don’t sit right in your spirit, I can’t do it.”

(Slutty Vegan in Brooklyn, New York)

Cole credits her business’ success to the support she gets from the culture.


“Cultural capital, in my opinion, is better than money because if you can move people, then you got an army of people that will support you no matter what,” she says. “I was just doing what I normally do, being who I normally am. I’m authentic in everything that I do, but I realized that people feel that authenticity.”


However, maintaining a consistent experience at each location is one of the most critical and challenging aspects of expanding the chain.


“Scaling culture is hard. It isn’t easy at all,” Cole says. In turn, she’s hired a team to ensure that every store provides the same level of customer service and energy. “I want people to walk into New York and feel the same way that they feel when they walk into [an] Atlanta [store].” 




Cole, who professes that Slutty Vegan will become a global brand to the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King, is one step closer to scaling the restaurant to a billion-dollar business. The company was valued at $100 million last year following a $25 million investment announced in May from a group co-founded by Shake Shack founder Danny Meyer and Essence Ventures founder Richlieu Dennis. Cole, who retains majority ownership, invested the funds to hire C-suite executives, open more locations, and grow the company’s packaged foods business, which includes a line of dips in Atlanta-area Target stores. 


Never Get Comfortable At Being Good Enough. I Always Exceed The Standard In Everything That I Do.​

“I’m going on my fifth year in business. Restaurants don’t last that long. So, to be able to say that I have that, and the business is still doing well and still increasing, just shows me that we are moving in the right direction, and Slutty Vegan will be a household name.”

In addition to expanding Slutty Vegan, in five years, the business mogul has opened two Bar Vegan restaurants – a sister concept serving vegan cheesesteaks, egg rolls, and tater tots – and become known for her philanthropic endeavors.
In 2019, she launched The Pinky Cole Foundation, a nonprofit that helps Black and brown entrepreneurs find economic opportunities through educational programs, networking events, fundraising, and philanthropy. Through the organization, she’s donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to underprivileged youth. The foundation has also provided scholarships to juvenile offenders in Atlanta and donated 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to those suffering from food insecurity.

In 2022, Cole granted graduates of her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, limited liability companies (LLCs) as a gift to help them forge a path toward entrepreneurship. She has also created scholarship funds for students currently enrolled at the university. Plus, she launched PETA’s Push for Food Justice, worked to provide life insurance policies to 25,000 Black men, and offered to pay rent for local businesses.

Furthermore, Cole has landed historic partnerships with brands like Steve Madden and Shake Shack and signed a seven-figure book deal with Simon and Schuster. In November, she kicked off a five-city tour to promote her new cookbook, Eat Plants, B*tch: 91 Vegan Recipes That Will Blow Your Meat-Loving Mind.

Part of Cole’s strategy for business growth is reaching meat-eaters since only about 2% of Americans identify as vegan, according to the market research firm Statista. Likewise, her cookbook targets vegan-curious people by focusing on comfort food classics like egg rolls and oyster mushroom “scallops.”




Outside her budding business empire, Cole is set to wed her boyfriend of three years, restauranter Derrick Hayes, in June. The two share two children, a 72,000-square-foot home, and multiple investments together.

“He really is my soulmate,” she says. “He’s my person.”

The entrepreneurs initially met up for a business lunch back in 2020 after she DM’d him. From that moment, they’ve been inseparable, buying 20 properties together in the last three years.

“It was just two community leaders coming together to build, and then we started a friendship,” she said. “He got his empire. I got my empire. And then we’re building an empire together.”

Cole was initially hesitant to publicize her relationship with Hayes in fear of public backlash since he owns the Dave’s Cheesesteaks chains.


“Even though we have two totally different dietary lifestyles, he don’t judge me and I don’t judge him. And we are the example that people who are totally different can coexist in the same spaces.”


Cole says balancing her business as a mother and soon-to-be-wife has its challenges.

“As soon as I delivered my baby, I [was] on the phone doing business,” she recalls.

Yet, establishing her own family has ironically helped her become a better business leader. Her leadership style was originally very stern and tough, but now she takes a milder approach when it comes to her team.


“I was just very militant,” she said. “If anybody had a bad customer service report, I’d fired them immediately.”


Now, she says, she’s more lenient and approachable.

“Ever since I had children, I became more patient,” she says. “I got a little soft,” she chuckled.



As a result, she’s created a safe and welcoming workplace culture, which Jason Crain, the president of Slutty Vegan, says is felt by her 360 employees.


“She shows up, she listens, and she influences change,” Crain told BE in an email. “She is vocal about her vision and what it’s going to take to achieve it. She empowers those around her and creates opportunities for those that work hard,” he continued. “She leads with love. The team knows it, respects it, and they are all committed to the vision.”



Cole and her business partners, Aaron Mattison and Jason Crain, are currently facing a lawsuit filed by a former employee of their Ponce City Market restaurant Bar Vegan alleging unpaid wages. Morgan Georgia, who worked at Bar Vegan as a bartender from March 2020 until October 2022, filed a collective-action lawsuit claiming the trio withheld a portion of her tips for themselves and the restaurant while also paying her less than the $7.25. per hour federal minimum wage. According to the suit, Georgia and other tipped employees were paid $2.13 an hour and were also required to give up 25 percent of their tips to Bar Vegan, its managers and owners during each shift. Her attorneys argue that that violates The Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA), which allows businesses to pay tipped employees below the set federal minimum wage if employees keep 100 percent of tips earned.


But Cole is fighting back. She and her two Bar Vegan partners denied all the allegations in the lawsuit a formal response filed with the court and are seeking to have the case dismissed. Cole also posted a lengthy Instagram post, stating she’s not involved in day-to-day operations at Bar Vegan and not “familiar with this ordeal” or the plaintiff.

She said she was compelled to speak publicly about the matter, in spite of the counsel of her attorneys, after her appearance on the “Today Show” was abruptly canceled due to the lawsuit.


“I had to like really defend myself on that one because anybody that knows me knows that the negativity don’t match my name. I am who I say I am,” she says. “Because I’m a community leader and I’m a public figure, it’s a sexy story to push that narrative, [but] it’s not a true narrative, but the law will tell the truth.”

Maintaining her innocence, Cole says her conscious is clear.


“The people that work with me and know me know that I don’t play that. Do things [sometime] slip through the cracks? Absolutely. Any business has slip ups.” Yet, she says, “they know that that’s not my character and that’s not who I am.”

“Forget money. All I got is my name, and I’ve worked too hard since I was a kid to build up my name. So, I’m not going to let nobody or nothing tarnish my name,” she continued. “If I did the crime, then I will do the time.”


Dora Whittley, who has served as the Agency of Record for Pinky Cole and Slutty Vegan since April 2022, testifies that Cole is a great leader of integrity.


“Of all my professional years, this has been the most rewarding because Pinky is truly selfless and has ensured every person around her wins and elevates as she wins,” Whittley told BE in an email. “Her drive, dedication, and determination is unmatched.”


Likewise, Clarence “KD” McNair says he’s grateful for the opportunity to work alongside Cole as her Brand Strategist.

“I thought that I was a hard worker, but being around Pinky, you have no choice but to grow as she literally pushes you to the max. Working with her has opened the doors to many other opportunities,” he writes. “Pinky’s story alone gives hope to the hopeless. No matter what you go through, it is important to understand that if you keep pushing, keep trying and never give up, anything is possible as long as you don’t quit.”


Dora Whittley & Clarence “KD” McNair



Despite her growing family and achievements, the restaurant mogul still has a lot cooking with no plans to slow down. One of her latest projects is called “American Sesh,” a social experiment that groups celebrities, business luminaries, and/or public figures with everyday Americans and tasks them to build the next big idea. Cole describes it as an exclusive “meeting of the minds.”


“In that room, you cannot have a phone, only pen and paper, and we just build,” she says. “I’m bringing people together from different socio-economic backgrounds to talk about things that they probably would have never gotten the opportunity to talk about with their favorite person in the world.” She added, “this is networking to the next level.”

Another part of Cole’s mission is to redefine the American dream as something that is achievable for everyone.

“I’m showing people that the American dream can be tangible,” she says, “The dream is within you. All you have to do is unlock it,” she continues. “The American dream really is your purpose.”


Ultimately, she aspires to obtain enough power to implement social change.


“When you have power, you can change the world,” she says. “It’s not about money.”


“When I rise and elevate, I’m able to enact change,” she added. “I’m doing it in real time. But I’ll continue to rise and continue to elevate to the next level.”


Story By: Selena Hill, Deputy Digital Editor, BLACK ENTERPRISE

Photographer: Will Sterling of Sterling Pics

Assistant Photographer: Dewayne Rogers

Cover Layout: Anthony Depree of Preemade

Creative Director: Terence Saulsby, SVP, Chief Creative Officer, BLACK ENTERPRISE

Video Editor: Edwian Stokes, Video Producer, BLACK ENTERPRISE

Web Developer: Deven Robinson, Dir., Digital Production, BLACK ENTERPRISE

Manager: Justin Barton, SVP, Digital and Strategic Partnerships, BLACK ENTERPRISE

Fashion Stylist: Fiskani, Ivy Showroom

Hair Stylist: Shanna Thomasson

Make Up Artist: Latasha Wright

Nail Technician: Tiffany Everett