Aisha Cole is tapping into America’s billion dollar vegan revolution with healthy meals and steamy names

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 29, 2024 8:50 AM EDT
Aisha "Pinky" Cole. Photo credit: The Bitter Southerner

In the last decade, there has been a significant increase in the number of Americans adopting a vegan lifestyle. Health concerns, increased awareness of animal welfare, the impact of animal agriculture on the environment and changing social norms have driven more people to veganism. The increased availability of plant-based options in restaurants and grocery stores has made it easier to live a vegan lifestyle. Described as a visionary and a provocateur, Aisha “Pinky” Cole is radically transforming the $16 billion global vegan food market with her thriving plant-based burger chain, Slutty Vegan.

Instead of approaching vegan food sanctimoniously, Cole’s restaurant is attracting the meat-eating masses by being playful and provocative. The food chain helps meat eaters step outside their comfort zones with creatively named burger offerings such as “One Night Stand” and “Fussy Hussy.” Slutty Vegan has transitioned from a food truck to a storefront, opening new locations almost every month.

“People come from all over the world. They come from Kenya, they come from London, Ohio, Europe. Anywhere that you can think of, they’re coming to Slutty Vegan. To see so many people who have heard about our brand from across the country shows that, one, we’re doing something right and, two, we’re helping people reimagine food,” Cole said about the impact Slutty Vegan has had.

Even with all the global recognition and celebrity fanfare, Cole’s goal is to make her mother and family in Jamaica proud. She was raised by her mother who worked four jobs to take care of the family. On the day Cole was born, her father was sentenced to 30 years in prison for distributing cocaine, he served 22 years and was then deported back to Jamaica. She has since hustled to change her family’s situation.

As a child, Cole was buying sandwiches from McDonald’s dollar menu to resell to her classmates for $2. She would rent neighborhood recreational centers, hire a DJ and charge children for entrance and refreshments. She went on to earn a bachelor’s in mass communications from Clark Atlanta University. She initially moved to Los Angeles to become an actress and later to New York to work in television production. In 2014, her childhood entrepreneurship reemerged and prompted her to open a Jamaican restaurant called Pinky’s. The joint unfortunately caught fire and had to shut down.

Cole went back to working in television after the fire but soon realized that she no longer found delight in her job. Working as a delivery driver for DoorDash on the side, she was introduced to the concept of shared commercial kitchens. Cole was inspired to establish Slutty Vegan when her job moved to Atlanta. She had been vegan for four years and found limited options to fulfil her cravings for vegan junk food. It was the perfect opportunity to create an exciting brand and career change.

But Slutty Vegan didn’t hit the ground running. Cole opened Slutty Vegan in the summer of 2018 out of a shared kitchen, selling vegan burgers through delivery apps. On her first day, she managed to sell only four burgers using the newly released Impossible patties. The trajectory of the business changed when a friend working out of the same kitchen mentioned the burgers to her more than 25, 000  Instagram followers. Cole served 100 people the following week and quickly outgrew the shared space as word of her products spread.

Cole purchased a food truck and opened the Slutty Vegan food truck to accommodate more customers. But the truck soon became too small. A few months after selling her first burger, Cole signed the lease to her first brick-and-mortar location. The storefront opened in January 2019 with an estimated 1,200 people in line on opening day. The lines remained a regular feature at Slutty Vegan’s storefront and its two food trucks, Slut Mobile and Big Ol’ Slut. Both vegans and non-vegans are willing to wait for hours to get a taste of Cole’s burgers. She has successfully built a community of vegan food lovers.

“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. You got people calling you a slut. You get your food. You got alcohol. It’s a party atmosphere,” Cole on how Slutty Vegan doesn’t conform to everyday expectations of a restaurant.

Prominent public figures such as Tyler Perry, Omarion, Meagan Good and Cory Booker have all had a taste of the Slutty Vegan burger. In 2021, Cole raised $25 million through a Series A funding round that brought the brand’s valuation to $100 million. Slutty Vegan currently has a vast range of products such as kettle chips, clothing merchandise, and food products in retail stores. By 2023, Slutty Vegan had 11 locations in Georgia, New York City, Birmingham, Alabama, and Dallas.

A marketing maestro, Cole has made vegan food exciting, trendy and palatable to mainstream eaters. She intends on growing Slutty Vegan into a billion-dollar brand.