In 2016, Aisha “Pinky” Cole’s Jamaican-American eatery in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood went up in flames.
A grease fire destroyed the restaurant. Cole says her inexperience as an entrepreneur put the nail in the coffin. The damage from the fire wasn’t covered by the proper form of insurance, leaving her sifting through the rubble of a failed business venture, trying to figure out what went wrong and – more importantly – what she could improve next time.
What a difference six years can make. Today, the 34-year-old is a cookbook author, philanthropist and owner of the buzzy Atlanta-based vegan hamburger chain Slutty Vegan, which opened in 2018. The restaurant’s four locations draw long lines and a loyal following – vegans and meat-eaters alike – with that provocative name, a vibrant atmosphere and an ethos that taps into Atlanta’s strong Black cultural connections.
Its popularity also comes from Cole’s efforts to give back to the city’s Black community through her nonprofit, the Pinky Cole Foundation. Put it all together, she says, and people flock to Slutty Vegan for the food, the sense of community and Cole herself.
“I’m a young, Black woman who’s movin’ and shakin’, and has a story of tribulation and triumph,” Cole tells CNBC Make It. “People appreciate that. And people can see themselves in me.”
Cole’s goal is to make Slutty Vegan a billion-dollar brand within just the next few years. It’ll take some serious work: Slutty Vegan made between $10 million and $14 million in 2021 revenue, according to a CNBC Make It estimate, and most billion-dollar businesses make at least $100 million in annual revenue. (Cole declined to confirm Slutty Vegan’s annual revenue.)
Still, she’s nothing but confident. “You’ve got a great story. You’ve got great food,” Cole says. “Why wouldn’t people want to support that?”
Healthy and vegan – but make it a party
Cole, a Baltimore native, says she’s always been a “hustler” – a quality she inherited from her father, who went to prison for his role in a Baltimore drug ring around the time she was born, and spent more than two decades behind bars. “It wasn’t legal, but he was a big-time entrepreneur,” Cole says.
It took Cole a while to figure out what shape her dream of owning a billion-dollar business could take. A veteran television producer who cashed out her 401K and took a loan from a family friend to open her New York City eatery in 2014, Cole returned to the world of TV as a producer and casting director for more than two years after the fire.
By 2018, she was living in Atlanta and ready to take another shot. A vegan for almost a decade, she says the name “Slutty Vegan” came to her like a bolt out of the blue. It’s intentionally cheeky and provocative, meant to challenge notions that vegan food is stuffy or boring.
For four months, Slutty Vegan was a side-hustle in a shared commercial kitchen — until Cole was fired from her day job for focusing too much on her new business, she says. From there, she expanded to a food truck, and then to her first brick-and-mortar location in January 2019. By then, she’d built a cult following: 1,200 customers showed up to the 635-square-foot restaurant on opening day.
The word “Slutty” on the door – along with menu items like the Fussy Hussy plant-based burger or the Skinny Dipper fried pickles – draws in customers who might not otherwise give vegan food a chance. The interior aesthetic similarly delivers a party-like atmosphere, with loud music and bright-colored graffiti on the walls.
“I wanted to negate all these notions that only certain kinds of people can eat vegan food,” Cole says. “The audience is the meat-eater. I love when … they’re pleasantly surprised.”
A ‘hustler’ who wants to give back
Cole, who had a daughter last summer with her partner and fellow entrepreneur Derrick Hayes, often talks about using Slutty Vegan to create generational wealth – for her family and others in the Black community.
“When we talk about real generational wealth, they don’t teach us that growing up,” she says. “They don’t teach us about business and financial literacy, especially not where I came from.”
In 2019, Cole launched the Pinky Cole Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at promoting economic growth and financial literacy in communities of color. The foundation, primarily funded by Cole and Slutty Vegan, has paid off student loans and funded scholarships at Cole’s alma mater Clark Atlanta University, created scholarships for juvenile offenders in Atlanta and donated thousands of pounds of produce to Atlanta’s food insecure population.
Cole also teamed up with Clark Atlanta to pledge $600,000 toward scholarships for the four children of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot and killed by police in Atlanta in 2020.
Of course, her own dream of creating generational wealth by owning a billion-dollar business is — by any reasonable metric — a long way away. Joe Pawlak, managing principal at foodservice industry research and consulting firm Technomic, says Cole has done well so far — but he’s “skeptical” that a billion-dollar valuation is around the corner.
It takes “a number of years to establish the number of locations needed and following to get to that level,” Pawlak says. At the moment, he puts Cole’s business just behind larger fast-casual vegan and vegetarian rivals, like Santa Monica-based vegan chain Veggie Grill, which has 31 restaurants in five states.
Cole wants to expand, too — starting in the southeast and then moving north, she says. In January, she told Essence that she eventually wants to be able to open a Slutty Vegan in a new U.S. city each month. The challenges, Pawlak notes, will be consistently engaging with customers in new cities and winning over non-vegans.
Winning over meat-eaters seems doable. The community aspect will be harder. Cole says she recognizes that her expansion plans hinge on replicating Slutty Vegan’s unique connection with the city of Atlanta elsewhere — which might require an unthinkable amount of time, energy and resources.
Just don’t tell her it’s impossible. “I already have a billion-dollar brand,” Cole says. “The billion dollars just ain’t in the bank yet.”
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter
How Brex’s co-founders went from teens hacking iPhones and video games to running a $7 billion start-up
How the Mexican-American family behind Siete’s grain-free tortillas hit $200 million in annual sales