Illustration: Nicole Album
By Clara Hogan
Slutty Vegan is a thriving restaurant brand based out of Atlanta. But it’s much more than that.
Slutty Vegan is a cultural phenomenon. And everyone in the restaurant industry is paying attention.
Opened in 2018, Founder Aisha "Pinky" Cole — whose business smarts and success have gained her droves of loyal fans — was determined to follow her dream: make delicious, accessible, unstuffy vegan food that even meat eaters want to eat. And make it fun.
It worked. Slutty Vegan has become one of the most buzz-worthy and fastest growing restaurant brands in the country.
No matter where Slutty Vegan goes, people follow. By the thousands. Customers go to Slutty Vegan not in spite of the hours-long lines to grab one of their fully-loaded vegan burgers — fan favorites include the One Night Stand, Fussy Hussy, Sloppy Toppy — but because of those lines. Every day is a party. The music is loud, the energy palpable.
Entering the store as a newbie? You’ll be greeted with “We’ve got a virgin in the house! Time to get sluttified.” Show up on a Saturday? You’ll hear, “It’s Slutty Saturday, baby!”
Celebrities have taken to Slutty Vegan, regularly posting their first bites and impressions of the fake meat-filled sandwiches. This kind of attention hasn't only fueled Slutty Vegan's business, but the way people think about vegan food. The message: if Snoop Dogg, Usher, Tiffany Haddish, Will Smith, Colin Kaepernick, and Missy Elliott loved a vegan burger, you might too.
It’s not just one singular tactic that makes this restaurant everyone wants to go to: it’s all of the various, genius components mixed together: the cheeky name, the party atmosphere, the on-point food, the insanely good social media marketing, and people’s desires to support a Black woman-owned venture.
All of these pieces have one theme in common, though: community. Slutty Vegan builds community in historically Black neighborhoods and through online platforms that reach people who may have never set foot in one of the restaurants, but appreciate what it represents.
The business has thrived during the pandemic when most have suffered, bringing in more money and brand recognition than ever. Now, Slutty Vegan is up to three locations in Georgia plus two food trucks, with plans to expand to more than a dozen sites up and down the east coast in the next year and half.
As the Slutty Vegan crew takes their food to new cities, they're eyeing locations that represent food deserts, specifically urban neighborhoods that are historically Black and lack access to food options. In the past, these neighborhoods are the ones fast food chains have targeted, while healthier options like Sweet Green or Chopt would go into white neighborhoods. Slutty Vegan will change that racist formula, bringing these areas something healthier and more exciting, in addition to likely driving other businesses to open up nearby.
And when Slutty Vegan opens up in a community, it gives back not just in economic impact, but philanthropically, too. Pinky is known to act boldly with initiatives from providing financial support to the family of Rayshard Brooks to investing in financial literacy programs to giving life insurance policies to Black men in Atlanta, to hiring people with past criminal offenses. Hell, she even paid off the tuition for 30 people graduating from her alma matter. The Slutty Vegan brand has also been vocal for the Black Lives Matter movement. Chris Paul, Ludacris, and Gabrielle Union-Wade bought out Slutty Vegan for Juneteenth to serve the local community free food this year.
At the end of the day, Slutty Vegan is impacting the restaurant industry, celebrity culture, the vegan movement, and the political sphere. It's done this in just a couple of short years, and we can't wait to see what the team can do in the future.
We recently caught up with Jason Crain, Chief Revenue Officer at Slutty Vegan, to ask him about Slutty Vegan’s wild success and learn what’s next.
Crain: March 2020 was my intro to the restaurant space. Before that, I was a product of the tech industry for my entire career. It was a good thing I didn’t have a predisposition of how things should run with a restaurant. Starting from a blank canvas allowed me to come in with an innovative, tech-minded mindset. Without those preconceived notions of what the restaurant industry is supposed to be, it allowed for broader thinking and going with the flow of things to make decisions on the fly.
My partner and CEO, Pinky, is a creative mind coming from the entertainment industry. So we’re two people who aren’t stuck in one certain way, that are actively asking ourselves ‘How can we do it better? How can we be more efficient and drive an experience?’ That experience has been what’s gotten us through — people enjoy the food, but they also enjoy the experience. They want to come out and wait in line for a couple hours and go to our restaurants. We didn’t even offer delivery service and we were able to open multiple stores during the pandemic and multiple brands within the restaurant concept.
We have a brand that’s recognizable, and our mission was always to extend it and make it accessible to more people. We stuck to that plan, and that guided us when we had to make some pivots and changes. As an example, we took away from seating areas to turn those spaces into retail shops to diversity revenue streams. It’s given us a better footprint of what future Slutty Vegans will look like.
We’ve also kept technology first as we’ve thought about scaling. How can we take this unique and very individual experience in our restaurants and scale it and grow it and keep it consistent? Technology is a big part of that to maintain consistency, transparency and visibility. It gives us data for informed decisions, infused technology in every juncture of our operation
Crain: We are and want to continue to be present in Black communities. We see ourselves as a business that is able to bring a community wherever we go. Right now, you see that people of color have been displaced out of urban neighborhoods. We make it part of our growth model to go into those neighborhoods that were historically Black to become a part of the rejuvenation and rebuilding. We keep a sense of the community trying to still live there.
This year, we’re under construction in Birmingham, Alabama and have a lease in Harlem, Manhattan. We are also under an acquisition process of building in Columbus and Athens Georgia.
Next year, we’ll be very aggressive, opening locations in the southeast and up the East Coast.
Crain: It’s a part of who Pinky is, and because that’s who she is, it's an inevitable part of our business. I think that as we continue to grow, we will have a local and national presence when it comes to community engagement. We drive our partners and other companies to also support local communities. Like with Pepsi, for example, they see what we’re doing and want to be part of it.
It starts with Pinky, they love her energy, they love her authenticity, they love supporting her. She speaks to the community directly to them and they speak back. They see who she is and respect it and they see themselves in her. They see someone who has come from where they come from, a similar experience, doing something that has arguably never been done before.
Crain: People are coming here to stand in line. They know it’s Saturday, and it’s going to be busy. They’re not avoiding the line. They’re coming to wait in line for an hour or 2 hours, not because the operation is slow — we have fast turnaround — but because the demand is there. They come to be part of their community. They know about Pinky Cole and what she’s doing. And these are people from all demographics — some are vegan or wellness focused, some of them are your average carnivore looking for good food, whether it’s vegan or not. We have Black folk, white folk, you name it — the community is diverse and inclusive and it’s all centered around that idea of what we’re building and what slutty vegan is.
And then our social media / marketing speaks to a broader community that, while some may have never had our burgers, they recognize the language and the culture of what our marketing is saying and who we’re speaking to. They latch on to it, whether it’s driven by entertainers or musicians, or Pinky’s political stance and her own social actions.
Crain: We believe in innovation. We have a start-up mentality. We make quick decisions and move forward. We don’t have to deal with a lot of red tape because we’re on the same page. We know what we’re building and we know what we want. And that’s the beauty of it - we’re not afraid to experiment and try things and fail. It’s not like everything we’ve done has worked out with success; we try things and if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. As long as we have sound business principles and are taking care of our responsibilities, which we do, it doesn’t hurt to try.