Slutty Vegan, a Black-owned Atlanta burger joint, is serving up jobs and life skills to juvenile offenders
"I really like to see the beauty in things that people don't see. It makes me go that much harder and make it more beautiful. When you think about the bigger picture, we make magic here."
Aisha "Pinky" Cole, 32, is referring to Slutty Vegan, her plant-based burger joint out of Atlanta that, in two years, has gone from being a late-night snack she craved to a viral sensation that keeps lines wrapped around either its bright yellow food truck or one of her two standing locations.
Slutty Vegan's menu consists of offerings like the bacon-topped One Night Stand, Jamaican-inspired Dancehall Queen, the buffalo-flavored Chik'n Head and its take on the Philly cheesesteak, the Hollywood Hooker.
Now that Cole has a loyal audience that has been "sluttified" — a term she coined as a response to her patrons praising the food after taking one bite — she's concentrating on uplifting those less fortunate.
"Slutty Vegan is just a face," Cole said. "I'm using my platform to help people understand that while you got it, strike while the iron is hot, and bring your community with you. I'm not even a politician, but I'm doing more than people that are in politics. This is how we win because we're out here making a difference in people's lives."
Staffing all (but one) Black employees, Slutty Vegan is Cole's second attempt at being a restaurateur. Her first concept was a well-known Jamaican-American restaurant in New York that burned in a grease fire in 2016.
Slutty Vegan came, Cole said, because there were no places to eat late night to accommodate her dietary restrictions. The demand for Cole's savory meat alternative came after a neighboring chef at a test kitchen posted the gooey concoction to her Instagram account.
"I'm helping people reimagine food in a different way and not feel like they have to eat animals to sustain," Cole said. "You can eat it and feel guilt-free."
Even Tyler Perry, Lil' Baby, Tiffany Haddish, Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Cory Booker have expressed how much they enjoy the food at Slutty Vegan. "All of this is guerilla marketing with no sponsored ads," she told me while we sat on the porch of Slutty Vegan's second location in Jonesboro, Georgia, a two-story home once owned by a magician.
"We never paid celebrities to eat or try the food. It brings me a level of joy, and I feel more valuable to the world when I can help people. We have an Atlanta footprint, but we are a global brand at this point. Atlanta influences everything, and that's the part that feels good."
Cole recently partnered with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice's pilot program, F.R.E.S.H. (Focusing Resources Effectively to Sustain Hope) Start Initiative, to extend jobs to 30 prior offenders. The new hires get paid training and are eligible for scholarships towards pursuing higher education.
"They're not just learning about burgers and fries; they're learning life skills they probably didn't learn at home or wherever they come from like how to communicate with people, respect them, customer service, and working as a team," Cole said. "This ain't no regular job."
Tyrone Oliver, the commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice, spoke about Cole's enthusiasm for the project. "She knows what the system can do to people, and she wants to give these young men and women opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have, and they deserve a second chance."
Born the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and raised in Baltimore, Cole said her father was sentenced to 30 years in prison the day she was born on drug charges, so her mother, a dancer and singer in a reggae band, worked numerous jobs to support her and her siblings. As a teenager, Cole got her hustle on hosting parties and selling McDonald's dollar-menu items and candy to classmates in the hallways at school.
Cole said she inherited her self-sufficient attitude and confidence from both her father's resilience and her mother's work ethic. "Nobody ever told me I couldn't do it," Cole said. "I work so hard because I never want to see my mother have to work this hard again and for money to be an issue. My father was never defeated; even in jail, he was calling me like a boss. Their dreams of success happened through me."
That's why Cole has no problem getting her hands dirty or paying her success forward: she works the grill and greets customers by the register.
Christian White, a 17-year-old hired through the juvenile justice initiative and who Cole calls her "little brother," said he wouldn't mind owning his own restaurant one day.
"I like the energy and positive vibes here the most," White said. "She's over everything here, but she feels like a regular worker. Some bosses let that be known, but she's not on us all of the time. She works as hard as we work. The store always runs faster and smoother when she's here."
Last year, Cole and Stacey Lee, co-founder of the local craft beer spot Harlem Hops, surprised 30 students at their alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, by paying off their tuition balances. One beneficiary, Corinne Coleman, is currently pursuing her MFA in television writing at the University of Georgia.
Coleman, an Oakland native, was working and raising her preschool-aged daughter all with a full course load. "Receiving that gift was a huge blessing in so many ways," Coleman said. "We still don't know why we were chosen. She's such a pillar in the community, I just knew something was up because she doesn't just show up for nothing."
Cole also collaborated with Big Dave's Cheesesteaks founder D. Hayes to provide the family of Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by an Atlanta police officer in June, with a vehicle, life insurance, and full scholarships for his children to attend Clark Atlanta.
Cole connected with Hayes after his downtown Atlanta restaurant was vandalized during the George Floyd protests. The two have since partnered with Atlanta Life Insurance Co. to provide $25,000 life insurance policies for Black men in Atlanta making below $30,000. Cole's economic empowerment charity, The Pinky Cole Foundation, set a goal to make financial literacy second nature throughout the Black community.
"We want to empower Black men to understand generational wealth and to stand on their own two feet while also helping these families that's grieving," Hayes said. "When something happens, they don't have the resources to bury them, so we want to help. It's OK to reach out for a helping hand if they don't know something. We're just trying to help these young brothers out any way we can."
Cole's upcoming downtown Atlanta location, her third opening in two years, is set to open in a few weeks. Along with a podcast, she just signed a deal for a cookbook and a children's book. Her stores will continue to stock her merchandise (like her Rap Snacks vegan chips) and will start hosting live DJs every Saturday.
Cole is passionate about continuing to place Slutty Vegans in food deserts rather than high traffic metropolitan areas.
The coronavirus pandemic, Cole said, encouraged her to ramp up her in-house virtual marketing to drive traffic. In fact, she quickly steps away from chatting to capture a quick video for social media of a Black woman from London who said she's visiting Atlanta just to try items on Slutty Vegan's menu.
"I've made more money in Jonesboro than I've ever made at any location," Cole said. "I'm breaking generational curses through my name and my business. People said it wasn't a good idea because supposedly nobody comes out this way, but I'm so happy that I did that."
Cole said her ability to create opportunities and give back comes from making unorthodox business decisions while holding true to her mission to defy stigmas about Black-owned businesses.
"A true entrepreneur or businessperson knows how to adapt and pivot no matter what," Cole said. "A lot of times, businesses may have fallen because they didn't understand that you have to move around and be creative."
"You create opportunities to advance people around you," she concludes, "an equal system where you and the people around you are making money, and you can uplift at the same time. I'm creating a demand where people will travel to me. You create something people want, need, and desire, and they're gonna come."
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