Why This Atlanta Vegan Burger Joint Is Thriving--Even as Restaurants Nationwide Struggle

Atlanta Metro Area, Technology & Innovation,

Source: Inc.

Pinky Cole launched Slutty Vegan in 2018 as a fix for her own late-night cravings. She had no idea it would become a fast-growing, pandemic-proof cultural phenomenon.

There was a line around the block, and Pinky Cole was perplexed.

It was April, and the founder and owner of Atlanta's Slutty Vegan had just reopened her burger joint, following a two-week state-mandated closure. She'd spent all 14 days thinking about the momentum she might lose: Slutty Vegan had been one of Atlanta's buzziest new eateries since she launched it from a food truck in 2018, and Covid-19 could make all that hype evaporate.

Instead, when Cole reopened, she saw more people waiting in line--socially distanced and masked, the lot of them--than she'd ever seen pre-Covid. "OK, this is a good problem to have," she remembers thinking. "But now, we have to make sure we're being totally responsible. Because now, we have lives at stake."

Slutty Vegan's success in 2020 says a lot about Atlanta's broader entrepreneurial ecosystem--which last year ranked 24th on Inc.'s Surge Cities ranking of best U.S. cities for starting a business. Tech companies with funding have, by and large, thrived: Atlanta-based data privacy firm OneTrust, for instance, is the fastest-growing private company in America. Many other industries, as in the rest of the U.S., have suffered from mandated closures, with restaurants and hospitality hit the hardest. Local communities are often fervently rallying around the survivors, particularly Black-owned businesses, says Kylan Kester, a community coordinator at advocacy nonprofit Startup Atlanta.

Atlanta has a growing reputation for Black entrepreneurship, but the pandemic has hit Black-owned small businesses especially hard. Business formation in Georgia is up 80.4 percent compared with last year, as many of the newly unemployed turn to side hustles for full-time income. In Fulton County, which encompasses most of Atlanta, the rate has fallen by 1.2 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly half of Atlanta's Black-owned companies have permanently shuttered since March, Kester says. But the rest are benefitting, to varying degrees, by the nationwide call to support Black founders following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing Black Lives Matter protests.

Slutty Vegan fits that bill well. Cole is Black, and her restaurant's mission to make plant-based comfort food "cool" has gained surprising traction in Atlanta--even as only 25 percent of her customers are vegan themselves. Community is key to its strategy: The company has Black culture baked into its business model, including an affiliation with the nonprofit Pinky Cole Foundation, which aims to promote economic growth and education in communities of color. Slutty Vegan is projecting sales of $5 million to $7 million in 2020, up 145 percent from last year. The company had help covering salaries for its then-40 employees through the year's rough patch, securing a $123,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan in May. Since then, Cole, 33, has opened two new locations--pushing her employee count to 101--with plans to launch 10 more throughout the Southeast within the next 18 months. She also purchased a $1.4 million building in midtown Atlanta for Slutty Vegan's new headquarters.

"The restaurant industry is the hardest industry to be in," Cole says. "So for us to be able to [grow], and to have a foundation that's thriving, shows that we're doing something right."

A cultural phenomenon

After graduating Clark Atlanta University in 2009, Cole jumped into the TV casting and production world, eventually moving to New York City. In 2014, she decided to chase a dream: a Jamaican eatery called Pinky's, which shuttered after two years following a grease fire. Returning to her television career took her to Los Angeles, and then to Atlanta. The difference between those two cities, to her, was stark: Los Angeles has plenty of great late-night vegan options, while Atlanta's best offerings all closed after standard dinner hours. And in Atlanta, she was the only vegan she knew.

One night, as she was sitting in her bedroom, the name came to her: Slutty Vegan, a marriage of often-stigmatized veganism with the concept of insatiable desire. Inspired, she booked space at a local "ghost kitchen," a shared kitchen space for delivery-only eateries. Through a combination of word-of-mouth, social media marketing, and her own energetic hustling, Cole quickly outgrew the space--leading her to buy a food truck, where crowds of 500 to 1,000 people ordered burgers with spicy names like Fussy Hussy and Ménage à Trois, which tickle the Instagram crowd.

One of those early customers was Chaka Zulu, a longtime Atlanta music executive whose resume includes head of artist and talent relations at Spotify, co-founder of the Disturbing Tha Peace label, and manager for rappers such as Ludacris and Childish Major. Zulu and Cole met at a Clark Atlanta homecoming event, and Cole persuaded Zulu to come try a burger. It was good enough that Zulu became a repeat customer--his favorite is the Hollywood Hooker, Cole's take on a Philly cheesesteak--at which point, Cole asked Zulu to become her manager, actively helping her grow the brand.

There's little difference, Zulu says, between managing musicians and founders. "Artists have ideas," he says. "And then from their ideas, they formulate an image and a brand. And from there, to grow the brand, you monetize. It's no different being an entrepreneur."

To test Zulu's theory, just stand in a Slutty Vegan line. You'll probably wait awhile, and when you get to the front, you can order a maximum of two burgers per person. The long wait and limited tabs are heretical for many restaurants, but at Slutty Vegan, they're part of the brand, as scarcity marketing increases the appeal. You'll pass the time meeting interesting people. You'll interact with staffers who keep you comfortable and energized--while affectionately cursing at you ("Hey, sluts!")--during your wait. "It has nothing to do with a sexual undertone. It's really to create dialogue, so people can get excited about the way that they eat," Cole says.

Many customers come for that experience, and the quality of the food is almost a bonus. "Slutty Vegan is a cultural phenomenon--a Black cultural experience--where you have very good food at the end," says Kasim Reed, the former two-term mayor of Atlanta who is on Slutty Vegan's board. "You feel like you're part of something that feels good. It's why people stand in those lines."

Crafting a legacy

The cultural element is the driving factor behind every decision Cole makes. Here's an incomplete list of the things Cole has done through her foundation--funded primarily by Slutty Vegan--since March:

  • Paying rent for struggling local businesses

  • Registering and educating voters standing in line for burgers

  • Distributing 1,500 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables to any community member residing nearby the restaurant's original brick-and-mortar location

  • Paying off student loans for 30 random Clark Atlanta University students

  • Providing 100 free meals to a local assisted-living facility

  • Purchasing car and life insurance policies for the family of Rayshard Brooks, who was fatally shot by an Atlanta police officer in June, and donating $600,000 in scholarships for his children's college tuition 

The charitable efforts could help explain why Slutty Vegan has lines around the block and the ability to expand even in a pandemic: Look after your community, and the community will look after you. It's an unintentional byproduct of launching a business to solve a personal problem--in Cole's case, the need for a late-night vegan hot spot--rather than building one for financial gain.

If finding a quick exit were the goal, Cole likely wouldn't be running the business anymore. Reed notes that Slutty Vegan has attracted lucrative buyout offers, and Cole has declined each time. Rather, Cole says, her dream is to create generational wealth. "If that looks like going public, then great," she says. "If that looks like selling, then great. But right now, I'm focusing on building a billion-dollar brand."

Getting there is a personal work in progress. Cole is the first to admit that she's still learning how to be an effective CEO--how to balance a budget and manage the paperwork, work with a legal team. What's more, replicating the Slutty Vegan experience at every new location will become significantly harder as the business scales, especially once it expands past Atlanta.

Such a narrative could only begin in a city fundamentally shaped by Black history, community, and culture. As Zulu says: "This is a true Atlanta story."