By Pinky Cole, as told to Mary-Frances Heck
Pinky Cole is the Founder and CEO of Slutty Vegan, an ultra-popular vegan burger chain based in Atlanta, Georgia. This story is part of The Food & Wine Guide to Plant-Based Meat.
I stopped eating the flesh of any animals except fish in 2007, and I’ve been a strict vegan since 2013. I grew up pescatarian. My mother is a Rastafarian, so in her household we only ate fish. It wasn’t a hard transition; I was always a lot more conscious of meat consumption because of how I was raised.
When I got to college and had the freedom to eat what I wanted—which I thought included meat—I eventually realized that meat was not part of the lifestyle that I wanted to live. I opened a restaurant a couple years back, and, while I was vegan, I was selling meat and it just wasn’t in alignment with who I was. I no longer have that restaurant, and I started Slutty Vegan because I have friends who eat meat and I wanted to introduce them to this lifestyle that I love.
My core audience is meat eaters. I’m intentional about that. Vegans have already made the conscious decision not to eat meat, but the meat eaters are the people who I really want to speak to. Those are the people who you’ve got to persuade to want healthier options, even if it starts at vegan comfort food and being more conscious about animals. When I think about our guests standing in line, the people who get the most excited are the people who eat chicken and beef and pork. Those are the people who excite me, because now I have a real opportunity to challenge them to broaden their horizons and eat something different, even just replacing one meat-filled meal a day.
When you walk into a Slutty Vegan, we up-play the experience. You hear loud music, people are laughing with you, hugging you (pre-COVID), yelling at you, just making you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. What we believe that does is takes guests’ minds off the fact that they are about to try something new. There’s this stigma that vegan or vegetarian food is flavorless and doesn’t taste good, and we all know that that’s furthest from the truth. You just got to cook it right.
So, in the time guests experience our positive environment, for the five minutes they’re in line, and they get their food, they’re not even thinking about the fact that, “Oh, I’m about to eat something that does not contain any animal or animal byproducts.” That’s how we reel people in without pushing our agenda. I hear people say that vegans push their agenda. I’m like, “How could I create a different kind of experience so that we can redefine how people look at us vegans?”
All vegans aren’t Bible-thumping or believe that you’re going to go to hell if you eat meat. I’m surely not like that. At the end of the day, what you consume and put in your body is your choice. But what I’m going to do with my platform is create a safe space for people to be able to ask questions, to try new options and to be okay with saying, “OK, maybe I don’t want to be vegan, but I’m willing to try something new. I love Slutty Vegan, so every time I’m willing to try those options, I want to go to Slutty Vegan.”
Photo: Ahmad Barber