ATLANTA — As a name for a food business, Slutty Vegan could have doomed the place from the start. Turns out, it was a really good idea.
At what is not much more than a takeout counter in a rapidly gentrifying historic Black neighborhood west of downtown Atlanta, people stand in line for two or three hours to buy soy burgers with names like the Sloppy Toppy and the Ménage à Trois, served with a side of crinkle-cut fries dusted in Old Bay seasoning.
The One Night Stand, a mess of a burger on a soft Hawaiian-style bun, is the bestseller. It’s built with slices of vegan bacon and fake cheese on an Impossible Foods patty, piled with caramelized onions, tomato slices and chopped lettuce. The burger is finished with two generous squirts of sauce. One is red and has the tang of vinegar. The other is orange and tastes like Thousand Island’s thinner, spicier cousin.
Among its fans are a roster of African-American celebrities, including Jermaine Dupri, Lil Baby, Snoop Dogg, Tyler Perry and Tiffany Haddish, all of whom have been declared “sluttified” on the Slutty Vegan Instagram account, which is inching close to a quarter-million followers.
“At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with sex,” said Pinky Cole, 31, who once sold jerk chicken in Harlem and produced a television show with Maury Povich before she started Slutty Vegan. “I know that sex sells, so I thought how I can positively manipulate this. We want you to have an orgasmic experience and the ultimate feeling of euphoria that comes after having a vegan burger.”
Then, she said, “I can guide you to the truth.”
Cole’s business is hard-wired to connect with several rising constituencies, not the least of which is the food-truck generation, for whom long waits to sample a singular dish are part of the experience.
She is also riding a new surge of the Black vegan movement, fed by chefs and stars who have given up eating animal products for environmental, health and humane reasons, and as a way to embrace traditional African diets and push back against Southern foods with links to slavery, like pigs’ feet and chitterlings.
She has also plopped herself in the middle of the fake-meat arms race, in which Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are battling to be the company whose plant-based protein best mimics hamburger. Traditional meat producers like Tyson and Hormel are preparing to jump into the market, where sales grew 17% in 2018, according to the market research firm Nielsen.
In March, the musician Questlove started selling cheesesteaks at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, using plant-based meat from Impossible Foods, in which he is an investor. The hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan helped White Castle and Impossible Foods introduce a meatless slider in 2018.
Cole realizes that burgers and fries aren’t exactly health food, but she wanted to meet her customers where they eat.
“When you think vegan, you usually think it’s boring, it’s fresh, it’s clean,” she said. “Nothing is wrong with all those things, but a lot of Black people see vegan as a rich, white lifestyle.”
The rise of Slutty Vegan has been swift.
Cole sold her first burger last August, through delivery apps. In September, she opened her food truck. On a cold January day in Atlanta, five months after she sold her first burger, she opened the restaurant. Nearly 1,200 people showed up, much to the chagrin of many residents of the neighborhood. These days, she averages 800 customers a day, she said.
Her social-media game is central to the plan. Back when she was selling only a few burgers a day, a popular Atlanta vegan chef gave Slutty Vegan its first shout-out on Instagram. Sales jumped. Cole began reaching out to other celebrities she knew, including Iyanla Vanzant, host of the TV series “Fix My Life,” for whom Cole worked as a casting director.
Now Cole makes sure she records the first bite of even the most vaguely famous customers. (Big names can skip the line, and sometimes eat for free.) The line has become a star in its own right: Posting about how long you were in it is a badge of street-food honor.
Her crew helps keep the party going. On a recent evening, a woman monitoring the crowd spotted some newcomers. “Slutty vegans, we got four virgins at the door!” she shouted through a megaphone. A man tending the small, smoky grill shouted out, “I got big vegan meat looking for those buns!”
And after all that waiting, each customer is allowed only two sandwiches.
“It’s about supply and demand,” Cole said. “Who wants something you can get anytime? We want you to beg for it. We’re not selling food. We’re selling the experience.”
Word has spread beyond Atlanta. She served 900 people at a pop-up in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City on Presidents Day. In April, Facebook executives flew Cole to their headquarters in Menlo Park, California, where she fed 300 employees. In June, she took her burgers to a vegan festival at the Rose Bowl. She’ll be at the Essence Festival in New Orleans this weekend, speaking and serving food.
Cole still runs two Slutty Vegan food trucks, and plans to open two more restaurants soon, one in Jonesboro, a largely African-American city south of Atlanta, and another in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood, not far from the childhood home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Then she hopes to go national.
The idea is to create a chain of restaurants where people can have what she calls “the whole Slutty experience,” including merchandise like her secret sauce and the Slutty Strips vegan bacon she is developing.
The expansion should take the pressure off the Westview restaurant, which has caused plenty of headaches for some neighbors. At a recent community meeting, in letters and in person, residents have implored Cole and the city to develop a safety plan to manage the daily crush of hundreds of people who arrive from miles away only to find little parking and no restrooms.
“I’m not dragging a sister, it’s just about accountability,” said Kiyomi Rollins, who owns the Good Hair Shop a block away. “We have little Black children who literally have to walk in the street to get home,” she said. “Families and grandmamas have to hear ‘Hey, sluts!’ from a megaphone. We’re just tired as a community.”
Cole said that no one expected the restaurant to take off as it has, and that she has worked to minimize the impact of the line. She donates time and money to help the community, she added.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with safety,” she said of neighbors’ complaints. “This is a neighborhood that has just been used to being that quiet neighborhood, and some people don’t like a thriving business.”
Cole, whose given name was Aisha, was raised in Baltimore by a mother who adhered to the largely vegetarian tenets of Rastafarianism. Pinky Cole quit eating meat after she got food poisoning in 2007. She gave up all animal products five years ago.
Her mother, Ichelle Cole, a musician who leads the all-woman reggae group Strykers’ Posse, raised five children alone. Her father, Stanley Asher Cole, was sentenced to life in prison the day she was born for his role in a drug ring. He would later be mentioned in studies of criminal gangs in America.
He was eventually released and deported to Jamaica. His daughter says she speaks to him regularly, turning to him for business advice. Her mother plans to move to Atlanta soon; she is about to retire after 30 years as a trust administrator at a bank.
“She has always been that child of mine that wanted to achieve,” Ichelle Cole said. “She had a purpose from a young age.”
By middle school, Pinky Cole was organizing and promoting DJ dance parties that she said earned her $4,000 a week. As a sophomore in high school, she bought sandwiches from the McDonald’s dollar menu and sold them at school for $2.
Cole, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Clark Atlanta University, eventually moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, and then to New York, where she worked as a TV producer. She used the money she earned to open Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant in Harlem. She lost it to a grease fire in 2016, and eventually moved back to Atlanta to work as a casting director.
At Slutty Vegan on a recent weekday evening, the threat of rain kept the line relatively short. That came as a relief to Tracey Hall, 36, and her wife, Ernisha Hall, 38, who were in town from Virginia with their 15-year-old daughter. They’re not vegans, but do eat vegan food from time to time.
Tracey Hall found Slutty Vegan on Instagram and became a fan of the concept and of Cole. They waited for about 45 minutes and had a Sloppy Toppy, a One Night Stand and the Dancehall Queen, which has jerk plantains.
It was good, but was it good enough for two or three hours of waiting in line?
No, but that’s not why they came.
“It’s more than the celebrity factor or the food,” Hall said. “It’s the boldness of the move. She’s smart.”