Whether or not you’ve had an opportunity to sink your teeth into one of her vegan burgers, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Aisha “Pinky” Cole.
The 34-year-old Atlanta-based entrepreneur and founder of the Slutty Vegan burger chain is a rising star in the growing realm of vegan celebrity chefs and business owners. Cole and Slutty Vegan have made headlines for the brand’s famous admirers and round-the-block lines of diners eager to order off a menu of plant-based comfort food with attention-grabbing names like “Fussy Hussy” and “One Night Stand.”
But before she graced the cover of Essence Magazine or sold a burger to rapper Missy Elliott, Cole was coordinating hot-ticket parties in Baltimore.
As a teenager at City College and later Western High School in the early 2000s, the Northeast Baltimore native put on gatherings that drew hundreds of her peers. It turned out her early success as a promoter was just a hint of what was to come.
“I had no idea I was preparing myself to be a true boss,” Cole said in a recent interview with The Sun.
Now she’s making her way back to the city where it all began. In March, Cole brought Slutty Vegan’s traveling food truck to Whitehall Mill in Hampden for an afternoon, attracting hundreds of Baltimore foodies who scooped up all of the tickets guaranteeing a burger from the pop-up within about an hour.
On Friday night, Cole will return to Baltimore, making a stop at Baltimore Soundstage on the final leg of a tour promoting her new vegan cookbook, “Eat Plants B*tch.” Between musical acts and talking about “entrepreneurship, food, life, success, failure and love,” Cole plans to share the news that Slutty Vegan will open its first brick-and-mortar location in the city next year.
The buzzy burger chain’s new spot will be a homecoming of sorts for Cole, who grew up on Cedonia Avenue and attended Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School. People have called her “Pinky” since birth: her godmother gave her the nickname because of how pink she was as a newborn.
She grew up in a household that was mostly vegetarian. Cole’s mother, a Rastafarian, does not eat meat, and Cole decided to become a pescetarian as a teenager before going vegan a decade ago.
“I decided to go cold turkey, and never looked back,” she said. “It was the best decision I ever made.”
She also inherited an affinity for hosting parties from her mom, Ichelle Cole, the lead singer of the reggae band Strykers Posse.
“My mother was always a party person — she was always moving and shaking,” Cole said. “We were just like the party family. People knew that when we were having a party, everybody was going.”
At 14 years old, Cole started hosting gatherings of her own, calling the city’s rec centers and impersonating an adult to reserve a venue for the parties, which she said drew 900 to 1,500 people per event.
“I can remember counting money on the ground, $4,000 at a time,” Cole said. “I was kind of like the most popular girl in the city, the youngest promoter.”
She leaned into other entrepreneurial pursuits, too, as a student at City College and later Western.
“I was selling candy, I was selling food, I was hustling,” she said. “I knew I was going to be an entrepreneur.”
Even at a young age, Cole’s drive was evident to everyone around her, said Azania Graham, a childhood friend.
“What I remember about Pinky was that she just always believed in herself,” Graham said. “We didn’t know how she was going to be famous, but we believed her.”
Witnessing the experience of her father, who was imprisoned for two decades on drug charges, also gave Cole a push to find her own path.
“While I’m doing this, my father is calling me from prison,” she said. “It made me stronger. It made me realize I wanted more than that.”
After graduating from Western in 2005, Cole headed down to Clark Atlanta University, where she studied mass media and communications. Though Atlanta has since become her home base, she never forgot her Baltimore roots.
“Even though I left when I was 17, I am who I am because Baltimore propelled me to fly and be free, and just not be afraid,” she said.
‘Sluttifying’ vegan food
Cole’s initial career plans didn’t have anything to do with food: She wanted to be an actress. After earning her degree from Clark Atlanta, she packed up and moved to Los Angeles to try to get a start in show business.
Though her acting dreams didn’t come to fruition, Cole did find work as a television producer. A job offer brought her to New York City, where she opened her first restaurant in 2014. The Harlem dining spot, called Pinky’s, served Jamaican and American food, including meat-based dishes like jerk chicken and oxtail.
“I really just wanted to be an entrepreneur; I just didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “When I opened, I was vegetarian. I feel like that’s why it didn’t work out.”
A grease fire forced Pinky’s to close two years later, but it ended up bringing her closer to a much bigger business idea. After another stint in L.A., a casting director job brought her back to Atlanta for a few months, and it was there that the idea for Slutty Vegan began to percolate.
At the time, in 2018, there wasn’t much in the way of dining options for vegans looking for a quick bite.
“It was really about right space, right time, right opportunity,” Cole said, “because when I jumped into the marketplace there were vegan restaurants, but no one was doing fast casual.”
She decided to name her new venture Slutty Vegan in the hopes that the provocative name would attract attention. It turned out to be a marketing coup.
“I knew if I named it ‘Pinky’s Vegan,’ nobody was coming,” Cole said. “But if I named it Slutty Vegan, people would react.”
And react they did: Cole started her veggie burger business out of a ghost kitchen in August 2018, added a food truck a month later — and by January was opening her first restaurant.
“People wanted to see what the hype was about,” Cole said. “After the first week, I couldn’t keep up, and it’s been like that for the last four years.”
Today, Slutty Vegan has eight locations, including a Brooklyn, New York, store that opened this fall, and a ninth location, in Harlem, is opening soon. She also runs Bar Vegan, a sister concept serving vegan cheesesteaks, egg rolls and tater tots alongside colorful cocktails at Atlanta’s Ponce City Market.
Cole’s Slutty Vegan empire was valued recently at $100 million, following a $25 million funding round that landed her investors including Union Square Hospitality restaurateur Danny Meyer and entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis, who founded Sundial Brands, the maker of products like SheaMoisture.
She’s using the investment money to open 10 more Slutty Vegan locations next year, including in Baltimore. Eventually, Cole said, she wants to build Slutty Vegan into a $1 billion brand that can rival the likes of Burger King and McDonald’s.
She also runs the Pinky Cole Foundation, a nonprofit focused on helping budding entrepreneurs of color find economic opportunities through educational programs, networking events, fundraising and philanthropy.
“It’s about to be world domination,” she said of her plans for the future. “You have more of a responsibility when people know your name. You have a responsibility to be big and to be great.”
‘Eat Plants B*itch’
Part of Cole’s plan for growth is reaching non-vegans. About 2% of Americans follow a vegan diet, according to the market research firm Statista, though the number of people consuming plant-based food is growing.
Many of Slutty Vegan’s customers also eat meat, Cole said.
“People can’t believe that vegan food doesn’t taste like vegan food at Slutty Vegan,” she said. “I realized that people are tapping into this movement. People are like OK, cool, we can be vegan, we can be fun. It’s been working.”
Her cookbook, “Eat Plants B*itch,” is targeted at those same people who are vegan-curious if not entirely vegan.
“The book is a cookbook for the meat-eater,” she said. “I wanted to create something that people could appreciate whether it was meat or not.”
Released last month, the book doesn’t feature much from the Slutty Vegan menu; rather, Cole focuses on comfort food classics, from egg rolls to oyster mushroom “scallops.” The guide spans breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, and also features stories from Cole’s own journey to veganism and the launch of the Slutty Vegan brand.
“It’s not just food, it’s a piece of education on how easy veganism could be,” she said.
Naijha Wright-Brown, an owner of one of Baltimore’s longest-running vegan restaurants, The Land of Kush, and a co-founder of Maryland Vegan Restaurant Month, said Slutty Vegan’s appeal to vegans and non-vegans alike is the way forward for many plant-based restaurants.
“Over 90% of the population isn’t vegan, so we have an opportunity to make these foods appealing to that market,” she said.
She’s been following Cole’s career from the start, hosting a Slutty Vegan stand at Baltimore’s Vegan SoulFest in 2018 and sharing the chain’s successes through her Black Veg Society nonprofit.
Wright-Brown said news of Slutty Vegan’s arrival in Baltimore is “wonderful” for the city’s vegan community.
“This is up-and-coming, it’s big, it’s important,” she said.
With musical acts and familiar faces, Cole’s Soundstage appearance has the potential to hark back to her days hosting parties in Charm City. This spring’s stop at Whitehall Mill felt like a promising prelude.
“It was so exciting, the fact that so many people came to support us,” Cole said. “That was one of my biggest tour stops. That’s how I really knew that Baltimore loved me.”