December 10, 2022

shinjusushibrooklyn

Than a Food Fitter

Slutty Vegan Founder Pinky Cole Raises $25 Million In Series A Funding Round With New Voices Fund And Enlightened Hospitality Investments As Lead Investors

5 min read


“I had never seen vegan food presented in such a fun way,” says Meyer.

Aisha “Pinky” Cole is a busy woman. The founder and CEO of vegan burger chain Slutty Vegan now has products ranging from kettle chips to CBD gummies, not to mention a shoe deal, a foundation, and an upcoming cookbook (Eat Plants Bitch). In addition, Cole says a major grocery chain has ordered 60,000 units of Slutty Vegan dip, which comes in flavors like Bangin’ Hot-Lanta Chik’n and has already been on shelves at Target. And Cole is expanding beyond the Atlanta-based chain’s five stores into markets like Brooklyn and Baltimore. She says her goal is “to build a billion-dollar brand.”

In a For(bes) The Culture exclusive, Cole says she has raised $25 million through a Series A funding round that values her four-year-old brand at $100 million. Cole plans to use the money to open 10 Slutty Vegan locations by the end of this year and another 10 in 2023. She’s also planning to hire a chief operating officer and chief marketing officer to help manage growth.

What excites Cole is not just the capital but the expertise of her lead investors: entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis’ New Voices Fund and restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments. Dennis founded Sundial Brands, which makes products such as SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage. Jason Crain, Slutty Vegan’s chief revenue officer, led the round in negotiating deals on behalf of the restaurant.

With Meyer, Cole gets a mentor who has created Michelin-starred restaurants and a successful fast-food chain in Shake Shack. “I got the Michael Jordan of food on my team,” says Cole, adding that Meyer “has proven that you can scale a business, and it can be unique.”

Meyer first became aware of Cole when she teamed up with Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti for a one-time “SluttyShack” offer at a Harlem location in August of last year. When Garutti mentioned the collaboration with Slutty Vegan, Meyer’s response was “What the hell is that?” After seeing the line-ups and seeing Cole in action, he was sold.

“I had never seen vegan food presented in such a fun way,” said Meyer. “Leaders are often defined by the degree to which people want to follow them, and I saw people following the leader.”

Dennis, founder of New Voices Fund says he too was led to trying Slutty Vegan after people raved about its food.

“It’s that really, really great food that put Slutty Vegan on my radar,” says Dennis who stood in one of Slutty Vegan’s packed lines to try it.

“They kept encouraging me. So, I went to see her. I’m in the line and I’m looking at the line. That’s what pulls me in,” says Dennis. “And, as they say, I was ‘Sluttified.’ I was hooked ever since.”

New Voices Fund, which describes itself as a growth equity partner, originated in 2015, with a mission to help Black women scale and grow their businesses. “It’s about partnering with these incredible entrepreneurs and their businesses to drive real scale and growth and create wealth for those founders,” says Dennis. “And that’s what Pinky has done here and continues to do. This new round of investments will rapidly transform not just the vegan restaurant industry but will drive an incredible amount of health initiatives and food options for the Black community that may not have existed yet.”

And this isn’t Cole’s first foray into the restaurant business. In 2014, she opened Pinky’s Jamaican and American restaurant in Harlem. But, following a grease fire, she lost everything in the restaurant. In need of a job, Cole took a job in Los Angeles to work as a casting director for the Oprah Winfrey Network’s talk series Iyanla: Fix My Life. She then traveled to Atlanta to continue working on the show.

When the idea for Slutty Vegan came to her in July 2018, she started the early beginnings of Slutty Vegan using a shared kitchen space while taking orders through direct messages on Instagram. “The next thing I know, there’s about 300 people standing outside, trying to pick up their orders,” says Cole, who went on to open a food truck and then fixed locations.

“When you walk into the doors of Slutty Vegan,” says Cole, “it’s like coming into a sanctuary of fun. We’re yelling at you. We’re dancing. We got Hip Hop music busting through the speakers. You got people calling you a slut. You get your food. You got alcohol. It’s a party atmosphere.”

Cole says Slutty Vegan’s energetic brand resembles that of her own personality.

“I’m raunchy, I’m racy, I’m organic, and more importantly, I’m real.” That’s not to say the name hasn’t presented her with challenges. Cole says she was told to change Slutty Vegan’s name as a precondition to being a vendor when the Super Bowl came to Atlanta in 2019.

Born to Jamaican Rastafarian immigrants in Baltimore in 1987, for the first 20 years of her life, Cole’s father was serving a life sentence in prison and he was later deported to Jamaica. Cole spent her childhood with her mother, a musician in the reggae group Strykers’ Posse. A vegan for eight years, Cole is engaged to Derrick Hayes, a fellow entrepreneur who owns Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks. They have a baby daughter together, with another on the way.

While Cole’s vegan cooking has struck a chord with consumers looking to reduce or eliminate meat from their diets, she’s not alone in tapping a new market. While the percentage of vegans in the population is hard to track, various research polls put the numbers at up to 6% and growing fast. There are more than 24,000 vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the U.S., including 1,474 vegan eateries, according to the latest count by Happy Cow, which helps vegan consumers find places to eat.

What’s less common is to find Black entrepreneurs driving that push. About 9% of restaurants are Black-owned, according to the National Restaurant Association.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Meyer says “we had a lot of time to self-reflect and think about the business we want to be and accelerate our diversity and inclusion goals.” An important goal in his funding is to support more Black-owned businesses. “It’s not just who you hire, but who are you? Which communities are you serving? Which people are you helping who have historically not had access to capital?”

There isn’t much that scares Pinky. She says even the fear of failing is a “beautiful fear” that pushes her to go further.

“I’ve got a fear of failure. What entrepreneur wouldn’t?” she says. “But you know what that fear does? It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me on my grind. I want to know that when Pinky is long gone, what I’ve created will continue to live on.”



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