Pinky Cole is single handedly changing the way people think about fast food with her innovative brand Slutty Vegan. She’s created a vegan revolution that’s loved by stars like Snoop Dogg, Taraji P. Henson, Will Smith and Tiffany Haddish (just to name a few).
The Atlanta-based Slutty Vegan restaurant rose to fame through her hundreds of thousand Instagram followers as a 100% plant-based vegan burger joint that has literally thousands of vegan and non-vegan fans lining up across the country for hours since breaking ground less than a year ago. Total Food Service caught up with Pinky Cole to talk about her out-of-the-box idea and how it led her to such a successful restaurant!
Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us a little bit about how you got started…
My parents are Jamaican. I grew up in a single parent household. My dad went to prison the day that I was born, and he did almost 20 years. So I grew up with my mom and my four siblings and my mother worked for jobs. So I had no choice but to learn how to be a hustler. So I started having parties when I was about 14 years old, and I was the youngest promoter in Baltimore.
When I was about 16, I started buying and selling chickens. I ended up going to college in Atlanta. It was my first time away from home and I just wanted to become the woman that I knew that I could be and college pushed me. After graduating, I moved to Los Angeles, California, where I wanted to be in front of the camera. A friend who was a television producer thought that I could succeed as a producer. She was right and over the next ten years, I quickly moved up the ladder from assistant to the producer of the “Maury Show,” in Stamford.
From there, I saved enough money to open up a restaurant in Harlem. That restaurant was called Pink and we had a line out the door. I didn’t know anything about the restaurant industry. I went to “Google University” and learned as much as I could about how to operate and run a business, especially a restaurant. So then I opened up a juice bar, which is right down the street.
We were doing fine until I got a call that my restaurant was on fire. It was a grease fire and, literally like everything that was in that restaurant and everything that I worked for was damaged and it wasn’t salvageable. So I had to walk away from all of that, which was very hard for me because all of my life everything that I’ve ever touched turned to gold.
Things came full circle, so then it was back to TV in LA and then back to Atlanta. TV helped me heal. One day in Atlanta, I’m sitting in my bedroom and I’m hungry. As a vegan, at 8:00 o’clock you’re not getting that, “You know what? I’m ready to do this again. I’m ready to come up with a concept that’s going to hook people.” I thought about the slutty vegan stock that my friends loved and bingo.
So I started coming up with some recipes that would mesh that theme and then I started coming up with names. My thought was no restaurant just a commissary kitchen that could also take advantage of e-commerce. I realized, I needed to “THINK BIG”.
Let’s talk about some of the signature menu items.
We needed to make vegan something cool and sexy to eat after a night out drinking with your friends. I’m helping people reimagine the food that they already eat. It doesn’t matter if you’re into hot pockets or burgers, I’ve got something for you. So this is not a vegan restaurant. It’s a restaurant that offers a different alternative and helps people to reimagine food. My core audience is people who are hardcore carnivores. When it comes to my business, people get excited about standing in line to see all of these cool, people come together in the name of food, and then they also get to eat something that’s familiar to them that doesn’t taste like it’s plant based. But it’s something that you want to keep coming back for more.
What’s the average price for your food?
On average the average ticket is about $32 dollars. So a burger can range from $12 to $19 for one of our popular burgers called Dancehall Queen. We also have something called a Menage A Trois, which is triple threat burger that comes with a vegan patty, with lettuce, tomato and bacon. There’s the shrimp with all kinds of fixings.
Sure we are expensive but it’s all about value. You pay a lot of money for the food but not only are you going to get a fantastic experience, you’re going to get the customer service that comes with it and you get a damn good burger that doesn’t even taste like it’s
cruelty or animal free.
So as you look at building the business, if someone wants to franchise a Slutty Vegan, what does their culture and beliefs have to be?
Well it’s interesting because this thing took off from the very start. The original intention was to franchise the business. But I realized I’m not at a place where I’m willing to give my baby to anybody right now. The aim is to really grow it slowly because we know that it’s bigger than burgers and fries. So our culture is bringing people together who are not so familiar with the lifestyle, but they can fall in love with it based on the experience of dining with us.
Beyonce and Jay Z made veganism so cool right now. So many people are going to adapt to that lifestyle because now it’s something that’s cool and is trendy. People want to be a part of it.
We live in an overweight society these days. Do you think you’ll end up in the school food service business or have any interest in fixing the core of the problem?
Well, that’s the plan. I think that I have a really great advantage right now because I am like the black Vegan God. Anything that I tell people they are going to buy into because they know me and they love me and they trust what I’m selling.
It’s very important to reach back to the children in the communities we serve. I do a lot of philanthropy and it includes children because the children are the future and I know that may sound cliché but we’ve got a commitment to the kids first. So my intention is to make sure that if we could put Slutty Vegan in the middle schools instead of them eating bad things, we can shift the narrative of what kids know what to eat. It’s hard and unfair to blame kids for eating what is given to them.
So what’s the approach in terms of the mechanics of running the business?
My approach was to create two distribution relationships. I use Gordon for my food trucks and Sysco for the restaurants. I have found that it’s important that I have two because if one of the companies runs out of something, the other distributor can supply me with that.
Talk a little bit about how you designed the kitchen and how you’ll design future kitchens.
It’s funny because my kitchen actually changed twice already. So we initially were going with a regular flat top grille and then we transitioned to the open-flame grille because we wanted to have that cookout feel and it made the burgers look better. So when I did my design, I wanted to be very simple and straight to the point and accessible for the employees.
How would you describe your cooking process?
So we make everything to order so you get your food in about eight minutes or less which is pretty impressive for new business. So we don’t hold anything. So the line is pretty long but not the wait time. Everything is fresh. Burgers, fries, nothing has been sitting. We take pride in using fresh ingredients to make that whole experience sound because people stand in line for two hours. We want to make sure that if you’ve been in line for two hours, you can come get a fresh burger and you are happy about it.
How do you go about marketing the restaurant?
We do a lot of social media. So now we have 243,000 followers in nine months. So everything that we post is informational news and that is how people find us and we are building the brand. We use Instagram to post menu options for the day. Social media is the driving force of our business.
Do you see a good opportunity for a television show at some point?
I’m actually working on that. There are a few deals that I decided not to sign. I’m just trying to find the proper person to get into partner with. I’m looking forward to the possibilities. I think it’s cool to be able to be a black woman owned business. it gives me a platform to teach people that you can do it too.
You should be so proud of what you’ve done. It’s amazing!
I am so proud. You know I’m really happy that I have a solid team around me. Nobody expected this business to grow every day. It’s a learning lesson we literally learn something new every day.
To learn more about Pinky Cole and Slutty Vegan, visit their website.