Atlanta was once the only city where you could have a One Night Stand and then come home to your spouse and brag about it — but soon you’ll be able to do it in cities across the US. That’s because the One Night Stand, a trademarked vegan burger, has become one of the most popular culinary offerings from an expanding Atlanta chain: the Slutty Vegan.
No, it’s not a diet-conscious strip club. It’s a fast-food restaurant with the energy of a strip club. When you enter, pretty much everyone behind the counter is dancing, including the people flipping the vegan burgers, in matching black, yellow mustard and ketchup red uniforms. The soundtrack is early Atlanta hip-hopcirca Lil Jon and & The East Side Boyz. The Slutty Vegan staff yells out a hearty welcome as you approach the register as if you’ve just scored a touchdown. After ordering a One Night Stand, or a Super Slut, or a Heaux Boy (a play on the Po’ Boy, but with vegan shrimp) the person taking your order will ask if this is your first time and where you’re from. Your answers will be repeated — no, blared, out across the restaurant and the staff will erupt in cheers again.
It’s this kind of counterprogramming that’s helped elevate Slutty Vegan from a shared kitchen/call-in order spot to a multi-million dollar franchise with five locations around Metro Atlanta (and Athens, Georgia). Founder and Chief Executive Officer Pinky Cole, a former casting director, recently raised $25 million in a Series A funding round that valued her business at $100 million. Fully capitalized, she’ll be expanding the Slutty Vegan brand to new locations in Columbus, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; Dallas, Texas; Brooklyn and Harlem.
If there’s anything actually promiscuous about Cole’s brand it’s her plans to share the bread and the wealth. Though only in her fifth year of business, she already has a foundation that she uses to give scholarships to juvenile offenders and provide resources for virgin entrepreneurs. Last month, when giving the commencement speech at her alma mater Clark Atlanta University, she announced she would be gifting an LLC to any graduate who wanted one and has, over the years, paid off 30 of its graduates’ college debts.
On June 11, she kicked off a food truck tour — the “Gettin’ Slutty Tour” — in Charlotte, North Carolina, to further spread the gospel: Along with free vegan burgers and fries, she gifted free LLCs to 200 people in partnership with the online financial institution Varo Bank. Beyond cooking and banking, Cole is also branching out via her forthcoming cookbook, Eat Plants, B*tch, and a sneaker collaboration with Steve Madden that was announced on June 15 and sold out the next day.
At just 34 years old, Cole, the latest Black Girl Magic entrepreneurial success story out of Atlanta, can count Viola Davis, Tyler Perry, Chris Paul, Lena Waithe, Angela Rye and Justin Timberlake among her many celebrity fans, investors and evangelists. The lines snaking for blocks out of her establishments — sometimes leading to protests and complaints — have solidified her rep. She’s now hoping to discover and cultivate the next crop of Pinky Coles coming behind her.
Bloomberg CityLab recently spoke with Cole about the secret ingredients needed to help young Black startups survive and thrive, and how she overcame protests and dustups with police over her name brand. (She didn’t reveal the recipes for her secret “Slut Sauce” or “Slut Dust.”) The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You basically expanded your enterprise during the pandemic, when a lot of businesses were folding. How did you pull this off?
Authenticity. And, the fact that we work our asses off. We got a lot accomplished in the pandemic, and we used it as an opportunity to grow. I’m so glad that we did because it made us pivot and learn about how to properly run the business and made us focus on operations. And because we were able to dial it back, we were able to push forward. So in the pandemic, not only did we open up new locations, we signed a book deal, a shoe deal. We opened up a new concept bar — a sister of Slutty Vegan called Bar Vegan. We’ve had amazing partnerships with Shake Shack. We just did a partnership with Beyond Meat and we just launched a partnership with Steve Madden. The pandemic really has allowed us to lock in, in a way that we had not done before.
Knowing what you know now, about the permitting process and navigating other city regulations to get your business open, what kind of policies do you think cities should have to help young Black entrepreneurs like yourself succeed?
There should be an acceleration process. So, when you want to start a business, there should be a program that helps you accelerate through permits and signing up for all the things that you need, from gas to electric. Because most times when you are a creative genius, and you have a really good idea, oftentimes those aren’t the people who have the business acumen. Because I didn’t. I’m just a thinker and I’d like to think I can just research anything myself. But if there was a program designed to support me and executing my business from the beginning to the middle to the end, and it was coming directly from the government, I think that we would produce more entrepreneurs and small businesses, and it would take the headache out of having to figure out how to create a brand that’s successful.
When you first opened, neighborhood residents complained and took you to court for the long lines you had, and when you recently opened in Athens, protestors picketed in front of your store. These things seem to have only made you more popular. As you prepare to open additional Slutty Vegans in other cities, what have you learned from those experiences?
Well, first, I learned that you can always turn a bad into a good. Anytime that there’s ever been a backlash — whether it was my first location and us on the verge of being evicted because of the disruptions in the neighborhood, or the police story where people thought that I wasn’t supporting the police officers at the height of the George Floyd riots, or Athens with them rioting in front of my store thinking I was the leader of the Black Lives Matter movement — I realized that I can always turn a negative into a positive. And those instances actually really helped to propel the business because it gave us a different level of exposure.
The second thing that I also learned is that not everybody’s not gonna like you. They’re not gonna like what you represent. Some people don’t like the name or what you stand for, and they’re not going to be in agreement with what you have to offer, and that’s OK. You need people like that, to not like what you have going on so you can really find a healthy balance and think, “OK, am I on the right path? Am I doing the right thing? Am I intentional about what I’m doing?”
I’ll give you an example. That situation that just happened in Athens: Yeah, it was unfortunate that they were protesting in front of my store but what it did was put more eyes on my business. And now I got lines down the block in Athens because people want to support me, because they saw who was against me. I’m continuing my mission and putting Slutty Vegan in inner-city communities and areas that aren’t so attractive to developers, and the areas where there are food deserts, because those are the places where my business does the best and are the most successful.
You stirred some controversy with the police in 2020 during the George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks protests — did that discourage you from getting involved in politics or make you want to double down?
No, it didn’t stop me. What I realized is that the internet is a liar and people will make up what they want to make up. I wasn’t refusing to welcome police officers in my store. We just had an aggravation where we weren’t wanting to serve them free burgers one day. We decided to stand in solidarity with everything that was happening. I need the police, right, to protect us. But with everything that was going on as a community and socially responsible business, I stood with the people who supported me. So, no, it did not stop my political involvement. I am not a politician by far, but I have a voice and I have a platform to use that voice. So whatever opportunity I have to use that voice, whether it’s for that, or encouraging people to vote in the election, I use it. I want to make sure that how my business shows up is in the right light, and for the people who support me.
As you move into new cities, some may not be as receptive to the Slutty Vegan name and concept as folks in Atlanta. What do you want people to understand about your brand before they dismiss it?
Between all the major press that I do, it tells me that people are now looking past the name. So that is no longer an issue for me, like how it was in the beginning, because people realize that this is not only just an organization that is selling food and creating an experience. What we’re also doing is showing people that you can build community all at the same time. And because of that people want to hear my story. They want to hear what we have going on.
It’s 2022. We live in a more progressive world, and my concept has nothing to do with sex. Instead, it provides a safe place for people to come together in the name of food. And I think that is what disrupts businesses. I think more businesses need to think like that and create racy names and create racy concepts that have people talking and thinking, like ‘Why the hell did they do that?’ And I’m so happy that I did. And I know that if I can make it in Atlanta, I can make it anywhere around the world.
To contact the author of this story:
Brentin Mock in Atlanta at firstname.lastname@example.org