Because Of Them We Can
By BOTWC Staff
Aisha “Pinky” Cole opened her first restaurant, Pinky’s Jamaican and American restaurant, in Harlem in 2014. A grease fire would cause her to lose everything, the budding entrepreneur switching gears to take a job as a casting director in Los Angeles, eventually traveling to Atlanta to continue in her role. In 2018, she would take another stab at the restaurant business, coming up with the idea for Slutty Vegan, quickly launching the plant-based burger joint out of a shared kitchen space.
“The next thing I know, there’s about 300 people standing outside, trying to pick up their orders,” Cole recalls.
Business took off and Cole quickly opened up a food truck before opening her first brick and mortar location in 2019, creating a brand that would wow customers and keep them coming back.
“When you walk into the doors of Slutty Vegan it’s like coming into a sanctuary of fun. We’re yelling at you. We’re dancing. We got Hip Hop music busting through the speakers…,” said Cole.
Since then, Cole has grown the brand immensely, the vegan burger chain opening multiple locations across Atlanta and offering even more products from kettle chips and Vegan dip, currently on shelves in Target. Cole also has a shoe deal and a cookbook on the way.
Cole said she’s excited to have a brand that resonates so much with customers. While people have tried to convince her to change the name to make it more appealing to a wider audience, Cole said the brand is authentically her.
“I’m raunchy, I’m racy, I’m organic, and more importantly, I’m real,” she said.
Now the restaurateur has closed a new Series A fund to the tune of $25 million, making the four-year-old brand valued at $100 million. Led by Slutty Vegan chief revenue officer, Jason Crain, Cole says the funding is amazing but she’s most excited about the possibilities down the pipeline with her lead investors; Sundial Brands founder Richelieu Dennis and restaurateur Danny Meyer.
Dennis came on board through his New Voices Fund, a growth equity initiative he launched in 2015 with the goal of helping Black women scale their businesses. He first heard of Slutty Vegan through word of mouth, eventually standing in one of their long lines just to try Cole’s food.
“It’s that really, really great food that put Slutty Vegan on my radar…They kept encouraging me. So, I went to see her. I’m in the line and I’m looking at the line. That’s what pulls me in. And, as they say, I was ‘Sluttified.’ I was hooked ever since,” recalled Dennis.
The mission of New Voices is to really support Black women entrepreneurs in growing their business, which in Cole’s case, is something Dennis thinks can transform the vegan restaurant industry and the Black community as a whole.
“It’s about partnering with these incredible entrepreneurs and their businesses to drive real scale and growth and create wealth for those founders. And that’s what Pinky has done here and continues to do. This new round of investments will rapidly transform not just the vegan restaurant industry but will drive an incredible amount of health initiatives and food options for the Black community that may not have existed yet,” Dennis explained.
Meyer, who is the engine behind some Michelin-starred restaurants and popular fast food eatery Shake Shack, said he first became aware of Cole just last August, when she partnered with Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti for a one-time “SluttyShack” pop up at a location in Harlem. Meyer said his first thought was “What the hell is that?” But like many, it didn’t take him long to get sold on Cole.
“I had never seen vegan food presented in such a fun way. Leaders are often defined by the degree to which people want to follow them, and I saw people following the leader,” said Meyer.
“[Meyer] has proven that you can scale a business, and it can be unique. I got the Michael Jordan of food on my team,” Cole told reporters.
The goal is to use the latest round of funding to expand the stores beyond Atlanta, Cole looking at cities like Brooklyn and her native hometown of Baltimore. She’s aiming to “build a billion-dollar brand” and while she recently had a baby with her partner, Cole has no plans on slowing down anytime soon. By the end of this year, Cole has plans to open 10 more Slutty Vegan locations, with another 10 slated to open in 2023. She’s also looking to hire a chief operating officer and a chief marketing officer to the team.
“I’ve got a fear of failure. What entrepreneur wouldn’t? But you know what that fear does? It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me on my grind. I want to know that when Pinky is long gone, what I’ve created will continue to live on.”
If anything, Pinky is showing other entrepreneurs what can happen when you bet on yourself.