In 2016, Aisha “Pinky” Cole closed her restaurant, Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant on West 145th Street in Harlem, for the evening. Then came a call from the fire department: Her restaurant was burning.
“Restaurant is pitch-black, the ceiling has caved in, everything is destroyed and I was sick,” Cole recalled. “All of the time and energy that I put into growing this business, now I have nothing.”
Pinky’s Jamaican and American Restaurant had begun as an investment while Cole was living in Harlem, working as a TV producer. After just two years in business, Cole couldn’t afford to repair the damage from the grease fire, and she didn’t have fire insurance, a mistake she said she’s learned from.
But now, Cole’s back, returning to Harlem with a new location of her cult favorite restaurant chain Slutty Vegan, of which she is CEO and founder.
The expansion to Harlem at 300 W 135th St will be the eighth brick-and-mortar store for the company, which is based in Atlanta. Slutty Vegan’s Brooklyn location in Fort Greene opened in September and has drawn long lines of patrons waiting for vegan burgers made with plant-based meat substitutes. They all have suggestive names; one popular $16 burger is called “One Night Stand.”
The company also operates a food truck that serves as a “pop up” restaurant in cities across the U.S., and an online store where customers can purchase Slutty Vegan-brand spices and dips.
At the Brooklyn location, employees wear shirts with slogans like “Plant-Based Baddie” and holler “Ayo, slutty gang!” to get the kitchen’s attention after taking a customer’s order.
“We got a virgin from Brooklyn in the house!” a cashier hollered, referring to a Brooklyn resident who was visiting for the first time. This is known as the full “slut experience.” To become a fan of Slutty Vegan, officially, is to be “sluttified.”
Cole, four years after founding Slutty Vegan and overseeing its rapid rise, considers returning to Harlem her “redemption story.” Soon after the fire, Cole moved to Atlanta to work as a casting director and started Slutty Vegan as a side project in her bedroom to create a different kind of vegan food. “I was tired of eating a side salad and fries,” she said.
She referred to her first restaurant as a “very expensive school” — a setback that taught her lessons and led her to become the restaurateur and entrepreneur she is today. Returning to the restaurant business “was very hard,” she said, “but what I realized is, if it’s too easy, something’s wrong.”
Over time, what began as delivery-only became a food truck, and then a brick-and-mortar restaurant in metro Atlanta. Slutty Vegan has stores in the Atlanta area, as well as in Athens, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, and now New York. Its investors include Enlightened Hospitality Investments, co-founded by Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group, and New Voices Fund, led by Essence Ventures CEO Richelieu Dennis, according to a press release.
The brand is popular on social media, with more than half a million Instagram followers and a list of celebrity fans. Cole finds its popularity exciting. “Celebrities want to eat my food from a concept that I created just as a side hustle,” she said. “Do you know how amazing and humbling that is?”
Breanne McCormick, a customer outside the Brooklyn location, has been following Slutty Vegan on social media since before it opened in New York. She is enthusiastic about the expansion. “Vegan food should be more accessible,” she said.
Slutty Vegan’s design for its logos and restaurants is deliberate. Unlike most vegan brands, Cole avoided using green because of its association with healthy food. “People were going to be turned away,” she said.
Cole wants Slutty Vegan to be about food, not vegan food. She estimates that 70% of its customers are not vegan.
“My audience, the person that I’m targeting, is not vegan at all,” she said. “And I like it that way because we get people who are curious, and when you have somebody curious, you can get them to pay attention.”
Every new Slutty Vegan location is intended to be similar. “The same yelling, music, fun, laughing, having a good time — that is the experience that I am aiming to duplicate everywhere,” Cole said. “Consistency is what grows businesses more than anything else.”
Each Slutty Vegan location costs more than half a million dollars to open, “because aesthetically, we want to make it pleasing, we want it to feel like an amusement park, we want you to love it,” Cole said. The Harlem location is almost done, she added, although she would not specify the official opening date.
Cole has bigger aspirations for the restaurant, envisioning a billion-dollar company similar to the major burger chains. But for now, Cole is happy to return to Harlem.
“I’m coming back to the place that I started, the place where I put my blood, sweat, and tears in, and lost everything,” she said. “I’m coming back to that place with everything and then some.”