There’s a cheeseburger in Atlanta that has curious diners lining up for blocks, braving high heat or heavy rain, and toting laptops and lawn chairs to make the wait more palatable. But it’s not locally-sourced beef or artisan cheese that’s causing the hype. It’s the fact that these melty, supremely down-able burgers are, uh, vegan. At the Westview restaurant, plant-based Impossible Foods burgers are topped with vegan cheese and flavorful veggies, from caramelized onions to sweet jerk plantains, and they bear provocative names like the One Night Stand and the Menage a Trois. Yeah, the names are kind of a thing: It turns out, a restaurant named Slutty Vegan is pretty hard to ignore.
“We’re celebrating the fact that it’s fun to be vegan,” says Pinky Cole, the former television producer who founded Slutty Vegan in a shared kitchen just two years ago. The booming business has become a cult favorite for vegans and carnivores alike, counting such celebrities as Tiffany Haddish and Outkast’s Big Boi among its loyal fan base. “I grew up watching my mother work multiple jobs, and it really forced me to learn how to hustle,” Cole says. Between TV gigs, she cut her teeth as a restaurateur in Harlem, New York, where her first endeavor, Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant, found fast success—only to be destroyed by a grease fire. But this setback didn’t stop the Baltimore native from moving forward. “Things weren’t handed to me,” she says. “But I always had that inkling, that drive, to be an entrepreneur.”
The hype around her vegan fare doesn’t seem to be waning. As her brick-and-mortar hums along in Georgia, Cole is taking her restaurant’s offerings on the road, with recent pop-ups in Durham, Charleston, and Miami, and upcoming dates in Houston and New Orleans. Due to the events’ overwhelming popularity—around-the-block lines aren’t limited to Atlanta—each appearance is announced only a few days in advance, and hungry diners can follow along on Instagram. “This is not just about food,” Cole says. “This is a movement. We are changing the narrative and getting people to reimagine food—especially black people. We are getting people to eat better.”
As Cole’s plant-based business continues to boom, we caught up with her to talk about her roots, healthy eating, and the importance of giving back. Read the interview below, and find out where Cole is headed next on Instagram.
What drew you to Atlanta originally?
I went to Clark Atlanta University, and it was the best experience of my life. Imagine, for me as a black woman, what it was like to see so many people who look like me, who come from around the world, and all had different things to bring to the table. I could learn from them and they could learn from me. It was really a melting pot of intelligent, intellectual people, and I’d never seen it like that before. There, I did exactly what I did while I was growing up—I started to hustle. I used to do hair, I started doing pageants. I joined a sorority. I always wanted to be involved and connecting people, because I knew that’s what I did well.
After stints in Los Angeles and New York, you came back to the city with a casting job. How did Slutty Vegan get off the ground?
This idea came to me like a light bulb. As a television producer, I know what people want to see, what’s going to spark and grab their attention. I’m also a vegan. I love vegan food. I love vegan comfort food. I love burgers! I love food that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. So I started making recipes, and I opened up a shared kitchen in Atlanta. It was only supposed to be a ghost kitchen—delivery only—and I was still working my [television] job. I would go to work at eight o’clock in the morning, finish at three, and start at four o’clock at the shared kitchen.
I never expected any of this. The first week, there were only like four people. [Laughs] I’d see fifty people standing in line the next week; a hundred people standing in line the week after that. I was put out of that [shared] facility because we were having too much traction, so [we got] a food truck. Then one day, I got a call—they let me go from my job. That call pushed me to go full force in my business. Suddenly, I was having five hundred people standing in line every day: we’re talking about lawn chairs, umbrellas, computers, bringing the kids, people waiting hours in line to get this food. I’m like, ‘Okay, this is bigger than burgers and fries.’
Giving back to the community has become a big part of what Slutty Vegan is known for. Recently, you helped pay off the tuition balances of thirty seniors at Clark Atlanta University, your alma mater. Why is giving important to you and your business?
We have a general rule of thumb here: What people pour into you, you pour back into the people. Growing up, I used to watch my mother help everybody. I didn’t understand it as a kid. She would take the shirt off of her back to make sure somebody else was good. But we come from Jamaica, and it’s in our culture. Everything’s communal. You share, you give. I wanted to have those same ideals in my business. “When you give, you will receive.” We do a lot for the community because the community really shows up for us, too. You see these people standing in line? They don’t have to stand in line. People don’t stand in line like that just for food. They do it because of the greater cause. They’re supporting a woman-owned business. They’re supporting a black-owned business. They’re supporting a small business. And they’re supporting the idea that people can eat vegan and it can be fun and it can taste good.
The majority of your customers are actually not vegan. Did that surprise you when you were starting out?
That was actually the intention. [Laughs] We want the meat eaters. We want the people who are eating the pork and the ribs and the beef, because we know we can change your mind about at least being open to a step in the right direction. Vegan food can taste good. It can be savory, be flavorful. When people come to the restaurant, they’re coming for the experience, but they leave with the food. They can go to another restaurant and say, ‘I ate vegan at Slutty Vegan, so let me try this option here.’
How do you foster an environment that keeps everyone—from the customers in long lines to the staff serving them on busy days—smiling and coming back?
At the end of the day, whether you’re black, white, blue, yellow, Chinese, Asian, African—it does not matter—people in the world just wanna feel good. And if we can make them feel good, then we’ve done our job. We don’t treat employees like employees. We’re all co-workers. We’re all family. So there’s no hierarchy here; We’re a team, because it takes a team. Even as the person at the top, I’ll go to the bathroom right now and clean the toilet. I’m gonna work just as hard as you do, to show you that I’m in it just like you’re in it.
Your menu keeps expanding: the “Chick’n Head” offers a vegan fried chicken patty with buffalo sauce; the “Big Dawg” is a vegan sausage with sauerkraut and a pretzel bun; the “Heaux Boy” is a plant-based take on a shrimp po’boy. But your burgers remain the best sellers. What makes them special?
The secret is in the sauce. [Laughs] We have our own proprietary sauce, just like McDonald’s has Big Mac sauce. We call ours Slutty Sauce. Anybody can put some beans together and make a good veggie burger. But a burger is not a burger unless it’s topped with the best condiment of all, and that’s Slutty Sauce. It’s a party in your mouth—a mix of sweet, fiery, flavorful, savory, spicy, a little tangy. It marries the burger together. If you ain’t got that, you ain’t got a good burger.