Pinky Cole’s Journey to Building The Slutty Vegan Empire

    Pinky Cole knows what it’s like to have your dreams go up in smoke. Literally. The curtain came down on the young restaurateur’s New York City debut when a grease fire destroyed Pinky’s Jamaican-American Restaurant in Harlem. To make matters worse, she didn’t have fire insurance.

    But what initially seemed like a disaster has turned out to be a blessing. Rising from the ashes of that venture, Cole has emerged Phoenix-like with a new brand, The Slutty Vegan, which builds on some of the lessons learned from that 2016 low point. Now the head of a multimillion-dollar enterprise that taps into the growing vegan market, she recently rang the Nasdaq bell at the opening of trading in New York City—an affirmation of the remarkable turnaround she has made, which has earned her the informal title of “failure recovery expert.”

    One takeaway from her comeback is the importance of due diligence. “I didn’t learn financial literacy in school… I didn’t learn what to do when you become an entrepreneur. A lot of us learn on Google and YouTube and figure it out,” she admits. “I thought that I checked all the marks, but I didn’t… ” (Today, “if I could insure my big toe, I would”).

    More significantly, she discovered through the fire the importance of being aligned with your most deeply held values. Just wanting to make money isn’t enough, she says. Though she had grown up as a vegetarian in a Rastafarian home, there she was serving up oxtails, jerk chicken, curried chicken and more.

    “I realized that my purpose of having that business wasn’t me wanting people to eat good food,” says The Slutty Vegan’s CEO. “My intentions weren’t in the right place: I’m telling people that we serve jerk chicken, but I wouldn’t put jerk chicken on my plate. To some, it may not mean much, but to me, I see the difference.”

    Authenticity is one of the biggest drivers to success.


    Reimagining food
    Now she is “super intentional” about what she does: “If I don’t feel right in my spirit, I don’t do it. If I won’t eat it, I ain’t selling it. If I’m not comfortable with it, I’m not doing it.” Bottomline, her conviction is that “authenticity is one of the biggest drivers to success, in my humble opinion. I believe that when you’re real and when you’re true to the core and your foundational element, anything that you produce will reap the benefits of success because it transcends into something that people can believe.”

    It’s a business philosophy that seems to be working, as more people turn to veganism—with Black Americans leading the way, according to a 2021 ABC News segment which reported 8% identifying as vegetarian or vegan, compared to 3% of the general population.

    “When I realized that there were so many people that were ignorant to veganism, not by choice, but just by access, I thought, ‘I’ve got an opportunity here,’” says Cole.

    “And the opportunity here is to help people reimagine food. And if I can do that in a cool way, and maybe people have fun while doing it and are not thinking that vegan is bland and boring, then I have got something up my sleeve.”

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    Others agree with that assessment: the business was valued at $100 million last year. There are presently four Slutty Vegans in the Atlanta area (where she started the business in 2018), plus Athens and Columbus, Georgia, and Brooklyn, and more on the way.

    Changing perspective
    One of the keys to the success of her plant-based offerings is the sauces—plus the saucy marketing. When she was starting out, some opportunities were closed to her because of the name (echoed in menu choices like the One-Night Stand and Happy Hooker burgers), but she would not budge. Now, she says she’s glad to have been part of redefining “what historically has always felt lewd and provocative.”

    Her stand is evidence that “there’s power in what you identify on the tongue,” she says. “People love what we represent so much that they don’t even think of the name or get offended or feel embarrassed or feel uncomfortable. It really is truly a name that’s a term of endearment.”

    Cole has established the Pinky Cole Foundation to pass on some of her hard-earned lessons, providing education and networking opportunities for young people wanting to become entrepreneurs. Among its initiatives, giving each member of the 2022 graduating class at Clark Atlanta University, her alma mater, their own LLC.

    Cole’s experiences of hard times—in addition to the restaurant fire, she’s had her vehicle repossessed and got kicked out of an apartment—have taught her to reframe difficulties. “Life is going to happen. It’s what you do with life when it happens that is what makes the difference,” she says.

    “Every moment that I have an instance where it feels like a perceived failure, I change the narrative and identify the fact that it’s not failure at all; it’s finding aspiration in losses. It’s recovering from a moment that may not have felt good at the time, but it taught me something really deep. That’s how I live my life personally and professionally now.”

    Things still don’t always go her way, “but I’m like, ‘All right, what are you teaching me? What am I learning?’ That allows me to take a different approach to what failure may look like and realize it was just lessons all along the way.”

    Make sure that you are keeping the knife sharp so that you’re always prepared to cut.

    From her experiences, Cole offers three essentials to would-be entrepreneurs:
    Put it in writing. “Don’t do no handshake deals,” she cautions. “I don’t care if it’s a best friend, if it’s a cousin. You come up with a good idea; put it on paper.” Doing so provides an important measure of protection, she says. “It’s literally a birth certificate to your ideas and the things that you want to do.”

    Look under the hood. “There’s a lot of pretty cars out there, but once you lift up the hood, the engine light is on it [because] it needs some coolant.” Thenit doesn’t start smoothly… “It’s not enough to just look good as a business. You have got to make sure you have built up the culture internally, you’ve got the right people.” For example, it’s admirable to want to give people opportunities, but you need to know you can count on them.

    Keep being a learner. “The Slutty Vegan has gotten bigger than me, so there’s a lot of things that I don’t know, there’s a lot of questions that I don’t have the answers to,” she says. Commit to always learning more, because “being an entrepreneur is ever- changing. Make sure that you are keeping the knife sharp so that you’re always prepared to cut.”

    My mother and my father have collectively and individually been waymakers in my life, which is why I have the pizzazz that I have, why I have the drive and the focus, and the desire to win and to see other people win. I get that from both of them.

    I am my mother, literally and figuratively. I have locks like her. I’m a natural woman like her. I’m mindful of my dietary choices like her. I’m a workaholic like her. I am an artist and creative like her. I am super busy and not materialistic because of her. She made sure that we had food on the table, she made sure that the lights were on, she made sure to teach me how to pay bills and be a responsible adult. And it was a lot more doing than saying; she showed me by example.

    My father did 22 years in prison. To be confined to somebody else’s ruling for more than two decades, but still have sanity enough to encourage me and keep me hopeful and help me read books and tell me about the stock market and teach me how to be an entrepreneur… that’s a waymaker in every sense of the word. In the midst of whatever circumstance he was dealing with, he was still trying to make sure that I was good.

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