Sex sells. That’s what Pinky Cole learned working as a television producer. She brought that mentality to her first restaurant, Slutty Vegan, which opened three years ago in Atlanta.
“What I learned working in TV is you have to grab people and meet them where they are. You have to entertain people, give them something to talk about,” said Cole about the decision to give her brand a provocative moniker.
The vegan comfort food menu follows in that pattern, as many of the most popular menu items have risqué names, like the Menage a Trois and the Sloppy Toppy. But nothing about the concept is sexual.
“It's just a driver to clue you in and to get you excited about the brand and make you ask questions, even if it evokes a feeling that makes you upset, frustrated, confused,” said Cole. “Now I can properly explain it to you, and that's how I get people to like [the food].”
Names like these make the vegan element a secondary thought when eating at Slutty Vegan, which is what Cole is aiming for. As one of the growing number of plant-based chains attempting to expand nationwide, Cole was looking for a way to draw in flexitarians and meat eaters with messy foods and interesting names.
With three locations opening this year, 10 units next year and a soon-to-be announced round of funding, Slutty Vegan is bringing its vegan comfort food to cities across the country.
And what better place to test that than the South?
“It feels good to know that the person who eats ham hocks and pork ribs will be open to not only just trying Slutty Vegan but loving it,” Cole said. “It feels good to me because I know that I'm walking in my purpose and I'm doing something right.”
Cole is part of a new generation of restaurant leaders who are vocal about societal changes.
“If I did this for money, I would never have spoken up for a lot of the things that have happened in the last year, but I did this because, guess what, this is bigger than me,” said Cole of speaking out during the Black Lives Matter protests and becoming involved in the election and voting rights.
Other entrepreneurs will steer toward neutral for fear of isolating guests or capital partners, but Cole has garnered more fans (and press) from being herself and standing up for what she believes in as part of the company platform.
“As a responsible business owner and someone who represents a class of people, it's my responsibility to be socially responsible and to stand up for my people,” said Cole.
Slutty Vegan may be small today but, through ghost kitchens and a partnership with Shake Shack, it’s spread nationally and internationally. Twice in the past year, Slutty Vegan has partnered with Shake Shack to design a plant-based burger for one day only at select locations.
The SluttyShack combined the new Shake Shack veggie patty with Cole’s secret “Slut Dust,” lemon ginger kale, caramelized onions, vegan ranch and vegan mayo on Slutty Vegan’s signature toasted Hawaiian bun. It retailed for $8.49 and was one of Shake Shack’s most popular collaborations to date.
Part of Cole’s expansion strategy is to help underserved communities and residents of food deserts find better-for-you food that’s still comforting and fun.
“[At Slutty Vegan] we show you a good time. We have music playing. We dance with you,” she said. “And then by the time you get your food, psychologically something has triggered in your mind that says, ‘Wow, I've never been to a place of business that's Black-owned, woman-owned, minority-owned that offers this exemplary experience, that is going to provide the ultimate customer service, and I can be myself’.”
That strategy includes hiring people in these areas of high unemployment and buying the buildings Slutty Vegan takes over to raise property values in the area. It’s a multi-pronged approach that Cole has worked on with her team to perfect as they prepare for expansion over the next few years.
“It's bigger than burgers and fries, it is really about revolutionizing a movement and showing people that you can be in whatever industry you're in, and you can protest any way that you can as long as you're making change,” said Cole.
That’s also the reason Cole started the Pinky Cole Foundation.
“I wanted one to bridge the generational wealth gap and to show people that you can be the girl from East Baltimore with roots from Jamaica and be everything that you want to be,” she said. “You can really stand for what you believe in, and not be afraid of the backlash that people are going to give you.”