Clark Atlanta University‘s upcoming commencement will be addressed by alumna, entrepreneur, and keynote speaker Aisha “Pinky” Cole! Learn more from Aaron Hutcherson at The Washington Post.

Pinky Cole is the founder of Slutty Vegan, an Atlanta-based restaurant chain and fast-growing national brand. (Lexi Scott/For The Washington Post)

Aisha “Pinky” Cole has headline ideas for this article, a week before I board a plane to visit her in person, and long before I have written a single word. We’re on our first call, and she suggests two possibilities: “Pinky Cole has the Midas touch” and “The new American Dream: How this young female entrepreneur is using strategic partnerships to grow her multimillion-dollar vegan brand.”

Controlling? Not in the negative way the word is often applied to strong women. In a more literal sense of the word, though, evoking someone who is very used to running the show: Definitely. But as the founder of the Slutty Vegan chain of burger joints based in Atlanta, Cole is poised to take the business national — and she knows that image is everything. “That’s the producer in me,” she says.

Throughout my time over the phone and in person with 34-year-old Cole, it’s undeniable how polished she is at telling her and Slutty Vegan’s story, each sentence dripping with infectious passion. Perhaps it’s due to her time competing in beauty pageants — “I won Miss Congeniality,” she says — when she honed her public speaking skills, or from working in television, when she learned what looked good in front of the camera. Or maybe it’s because she has had to be her own biggest champion in a society where Black women aren’t always given the same tools for entrepreneurial success as others.

Slutty Vegan’s burgers come with provocative names, such as “One Night Stand,” “Ménage à Trois” and “Fussy Hussy.” (Lexi Scott/For The Washington Post)

Cole has long believed that Slutty Vegan will be a billion-dollar brand — “bigger than McDonald’s and Burger King and Chick-fil-A,” she says — and wants to make it a household name. Now, with news from Cole of a $25 million investment, part of which is from a group co-founded by Shake Shack’s Danny Meyer, she is poised to make that a reality.

Born in East Baltimore to Jamaican immigrants, Cole grew up without her father, who on the day she was born was sentenced to life in prison for running a cocaine-distribution ring. (He was eventually deported to Jamaica.) She and her four siblings were raised by their mother, who worked multiple jobs. “She did whatever was necessary to make sure that my family had everything that we needed,” Cole says, and that mentality rubbed off on her. Even as a child she had various hustles, such as buying sandwiches from McDonald’s dollar menu to resell to her classmates for $2, and throwing parties that would bring in thousands of dollars a week by renting neighborhood rec centers, hiring a DJ and charging kids an entry fee and for refreshments.

After graduating from Clark Atlanta University — where she is proud to return as the commencement speaker this month — Cole headed to Los Angeles, where she worked in television casting and production. Hiatuses being standard, Cole also worked as a delivery driver for DoorDash, which introduced her to the concept of shared commercial kitchens. When her TV job moved her to Atlanta, she was struck with inspiration.

“When I was sitting in my bedroom, it came to me like a lightbulb: Slutty Vegan,” Cole says. She had been vegan for four years, so her restaurant concept was mostly to solve a personal problem: the lack of the type of food she wanted to eat, particularly late at night. “I was tired of eating a side salad and fries from Chick-fil-A every single day.”

She meant the name to be jarring. “I merge the two most pleasurable experiences: sex and food,” she says. “I wanted to create a dialogue that was so racy. I’m either going to inspire you for being so creative, or I’m going to piss you off because you couldn’t believe that I would name a business after this.” The provocative language can be found throughout the company, such as in menu items called “One Night Stand,” “Ménage à Trois” and “Fussy Hussy.”

In summer 2018, during her first day running Slutty Vegan out of a shared kitchen, she sold only four burgers using the newly released Impossible patties. Then, a friend working out of the same kitchen mentioned the burgers to her more 25,000 Instagram followers, Cole served 100 people the following week, and word kept spreading. She quickly outgrew the shared space and purchased a food truck, but even that soon became too small, and she signed the lease to her first bricks-and-mortar location just a few months after selling her first burger.

Keep in mind that Cole still had a day job, and once her focus shifted too much to growing Slutty Vegan, she was fired. The same day, she went to a 24-hour spa with two employees after running the food truck. As they were unwinding, Cole received a call around midnight from rapper and producer Jermaine Dupri saying that Snoop Dogg wanted one of her burgers. One of Cole’s life principles comes from Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” — “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime” — so she and her team got dressed, went to pick up the truck and drove to a music studio to meet them. “It was like 2 a.m. when Snoop Dogg ate the food. And ever since then, nothing has ever been the same,” Cole says.

The storefront opened in January 2019 to an estimated 1,200 people in line. “I can’t believe this. Why are all of these people here?” she recalls thinking at the time. “I realized that it was bigger than me and it was bigger than food. People are here supporting community.”

From left: Tyler Williams, Marquel Newton and Nevaeh Long prepping before the lunch crowd at Slutty Vegan. (Lexi Scott/For The Washington Post)

Her success has not always gone unchallenged.

Cole has now opened four locations in the Atlanta area, with a fifth in Athens, Ga., debuting this month, and she often targets areas that lack varied restaurant options. The flip side to the popularity of her businesses is that some community residents have complained that the long lines and crowds disrupt the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods. Cole says she wants to be a good neighbor, to help revitalize communities, and she has been strategic about opening new restaurants, such as through buying (instead of leasing) most properties. She searches for areas that are food insecure, lacking in vegan options and generally not attractive to developers. “If it checks at least two of those boxes, then I put a location there,” she says, with the goal of her customers supporting nearby businesses and increasing area property values.

The biggest hurdle has been finding staff who believe in her mission and aren’t in it just for a paycheck. The main qualification needed is “Big Slut Energy,” as displayed on a recruitment sign. “You’ve got to be a f—ing rock star to work at Slutty Vegan. You have to be raw, authentic, real. You got to have a big personality,” Cole says. Because for her, a great customer experience is imperative. “I want it to feel like a party.”

Now Cole has 220 employees she relies on to handle day-to-day operations so she can focus on the larger picture. But her perfectionism, something she says she’s working on, still shines through. After filming a segment for a morning show, she eats the burger she demonstrated on camera and comments that it’s not spicy enough, instructing an employee to fix the batch of sauce. And later, when tasting a new menu item at Bar Vegan, a restaurant and cocktail lounge under the Slutty Vegan umbrella, she says, “It tastes like restaurant spaghetti.” In other words, it’s missing the bold flavor her food is known for.

“I’m very clear and direct,” Cole says during a chat in her busy day. “I know exactly how I want it and I know how it’s supposed to feel. … I have a real strong personality, and sometimes people love it and sometimes they can’t handle it. But I’m just always me.”

Marquel Newton, a general manager at the Edgewood Slutty Vegan location, calls Cole “cool” and “down to earth,” adding, “But she wants what she wants. … As long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to, you’re never going to have an issue.”

With Cole’s strong personality comes a passion for her team, customers and the community at large. “She’s very caring about the people, and not just the people that work for her,” say Michael Matthews, chef at Bar Vegan. In addition to the more impactful philanthropy she does through the Pinky Cole Foundation, I saw her give of herself on a smaller scale when she spoke to a group of college students, advising them on the spot about how to start their endeavors, and in a conversation with an employee who has dreams of acting; she told him to send her his reel so she could try to help.

The company has a purported $100 million valuation, and Cole retains majority ownership. The invested funds will be used to find C-suite executives, open locations beyond the Atlanta area (Brooklyn; Harlem; Birmingham, Ala.; and Columbus, Ga. are underway), and grow the company in other ways, such as through its burgeoning packaged foods business. (A line of dips is in Atlanta-area Target stores, and plans are underway to expand to other regions and retailers.)

She has been “approached by a lot of people” interested in partnerships, but the decision came down to “getting in bed with people who understand the vision, understand how to scale a company operationally,” Cole says. And when it comes to large restaurant operations, Danny Meyer is at or near the top of anybody’s list.

For Meyer, the rising interest in plant-based food makes his group’s investment simply good business, and Slutty Vegan is a standout. “She’s kind of turning upside-down the notion that to be vegan has to be to live a life in denial of pleasure,” Meyer says. “In fact, the name itself is this wonderful combination of very unexpected bedfellows, so to speak.”

But more than that, he was drawn in by Cole herself. “Great leadership is when you have a great following,” Meyer says, and he saw that when he visited Slutty Vegan in Atlanta and via collaborations between Cole’s brand and Shake Shack. (I, too, witnessed her reach when I saw a woman wearing a Slutty Vegan ATL T-shirt on my first night in the city.) “I’m a big believer that you invest in people and leaders and founders as much as the idea itself.”

Pinky Cole speaks during the Essence + New Voices Entrepreneur Summit in Atlanta in 2019. (Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ESSENCE)

Cole is a self-proclaimed workaholic, and on top of everything else she has a cookbook, “Eat Plants, B*tch: 91 Vegan Recipes That Will Blow Your Meat-Loving Mind,” publishing in the fall, not long after she and her partner, Derrick Hayes, a fellow restaurateur with his non-vegan Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, are expecting their second child. “I never wanted to be that entrepreneur who the minute that I had kids I had to slow down,” Cole says. “I don’t want to have to compromise” — and she doesn’t. She has speaking engagements scheduled mere days before her due date.

At first glance, Cole’s confidence and determination can seem intimidating or almost absurd. “She’s irrepressible,” Meyer says. “There’s just no way she’s not going to attain her goals.”

Spend any time with her, and you’d find it hard to disagree.

“I know I’m going to make it,” Cole says. “I will not stop until I get what I want.”