Pinky Cole Plans To Dominate The Plant-Based Industry With Slutty Vegan Restaurants - Exclusive Interview

Slutty Vegan is on its way to becoming a billion-dollar brand. At least according to the restaurant chain's owner, Pinky Cole, it is. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, the businesswoman acknowledged the current climate of the food and beverage industry, divulged what makes her plant-based burger stand out among the rest, and disclosed what the future holds for Slutty Vegan. What's the most underrated plant-based ingredient, you ask? King oyster mushrooms and maitake mushrooms, Pinky Cole claims. 

The plant-based burger chain is based in Georgia but has since expanded to Alabama and New York City. Cole's entrepreneurship was recently recognized on the seventh annual Create & Cultivate 100 list, which rewards female founders for creating leading companies and brands. The recent honoree opened up about how it feels to be recognized in the industry and revealed the new foods that Slutty Vegan has coming to its menu (hint: fish sandwich lovers are going to be very happy with this news!).

Cole's advice for entrepreneurs

You were recently placed on the Create & Cultivate 100 list. How does it feel to know that your entrepreneurship in the food and beverage industry is being recognized?

When I first started Slutty Vegan, I had no idea that flipping burgers and fries would take me to these heights. I knew that I was going to have a really popular company, but I never knew it would be a hundred-million-dollar brand. I never knew that so many people would appreciate the things that I do in this industry. I also didn't know that I was going to be an anchor leader when you think about veganism. 

To be recognized by anybody and anything is an honor and a privilege because that's not what I set out to do. And to be a part of the Create & Cultivate list is a big deal for me because there's so many people who are more than worthy that did not make the list, and I was fortunate enough to, so I'm humble and grateful, and I appreciate the recognition that I get from around the world, especially from the team at Create & Cultivate.

Do you have any advice for up-and-coming entrepreneurs looking to break into the food and beverage industry?

So much. The food and beverage industry is hard. It's one of the hardest industries to be in, [and] I've been in several. Go in with a winning mindset, but understand that pitfalls will come and be prepared for the pitfalls. Oftentimes, people don't prepare themselves for the moments that will be difficult, but if you're already walking in prepared for the challenges [and] you can create opportunities in those challenges, then you'll be super successful. 

I love the restaurant and hospitality space because I get to get creative every day. If something is not working today, I can fix it for tomorrow. That's one of the industries that you can do that often, and you got to know how to be a chameleon. You got to know how to be able to move and shake anytime that you can because that's going to sustain you in business. Think about a way to master that. That would be my advice to people who want to get into this space, but I preface this by saying it is very difficult.

You may start seeing Slutty Vegan everywhere

You expanded or are planning on expanding Slutty Vegan into other states — New York, Alabama, Maryland, et cetera. As a restaurateur, what are you hoping happens for your business as it emerges across the U.S. after you already dominated Georgia?

I want to become a household name. I'm already doing that on the East Coast and in the South; it's world domination to me. I want, when people hear "Slutty Vegan," [for it to be] not [a] name that is just racy and raunchy, [but] a brand that's as familiar as Burger King and McDonald's — not just for food but for innovation, for community, for ecosystem building. That's the kind of legacy that I want to leave, and in order for me to get there, it requires me to saturate the market. 

Slutty Vegan will be everywhere. I've been diligently and intentionally placing Slutty Vegan in different locations because I understand the value of what happens when more people see Slutty Vegan. When you see more Slutty Vegans, that's more communities that we can serve. When you see Slutty Vegan, there's more opportunities for people to learn about veganism. When you see Slutty Vegan, that's more jobs for people in this economy when it's so difficult to find work. That's my thought process, and I'm praying that this will happen within the next two, three years [and] not only will you see Slutty Vegan in Georgia, you'll see Slutty Vegan around the world.

I believe it's in New York already, right?

I had my grand opening last week in Harlem on Tuesday, and it was amazing. ... I have two locations [in New York] — one in Brooklyn and one in Harlem.

There are a lot of not-so-tasty plant-based burgers out there. What makes Slutty Vegan stand out among the rest?

We put a lot of love in the food. A lot of people who come to Slutty Vegan come because they want to see what the hype is about. [At] most vegan restaurants — keep it real, we've all been to them — the food is typically bland; it's not that flavorful. I wanted to create a restaurant where the food didn't taste vegan, which is why the majority of my audience are meat eaters, because that's the people that I want to persuade. If I can persuade you that a vegan burger can taste really good, then I know that I've done something right.

And it's the experience attached to the really good food that makes people want to keep coming back. If you walk into a Slutty Vegan, we're yelling at you, the music is booming through the speakers, it's time, it's a vibe. That [vibe] is food too — it's spiritual food. It's not food that you consume through your mouth, but you consume it through your spirit. I know that sounds real spiritual, but it's the truth. People want to feel good. Yes, the food is flavorful, it tastes really good, it doesn't taste like a vegan burger, but the experience that you get is what makes people continue to talk about the brand.

Plant-based burgers are all about the ingredients

Is there a secret technique to achieving the perfect plant-based burger?

It's all about quantity and portion control. There's a method to our madness. There's a certain amount of sauce that goes on the burger. There's a certain flick of the wrist and making sure that the sauce is evenly shared on the burger. It's not just a dollop. There's a science to it, and when you get the science down, you've created a perfect Slutty Vegan burger. Some people don't get the science down, which is why training is so important. Once you get that science, it's that flavor that you get every single time you get Slutty Vegan. We have been really good at it on a smaller scale; the big challenge is making sure that we're consistent as we continue to open up new locations.

Is there a secret ingredient or something else that you put in your sauce?

Now, if I tell you that, I got to kill you. I'll be honest — when I created my sauce, I was just putting ingredients together in a bowl and mixing. Then I'm like, "Okay, this taste[s] good. Let me do this," and it just worked. I'm not a culinary chef. I didn't go to chef school. I don't have any formal training. I just put things together that tasted really good, and I'm like, "Okay, this is it," and then I had to break down what I put in there to make a recipe. It really is the je ne sais quoi of it all.

Like the Krabby Patty secret formula.

[I've] never shared it. We call it the Secret Slut Sauce.

Slutty Vegan has a fish sandwich on the way

You make your burgers with Impossible or Beyond Meat, which saw a considerable dip in revenue last year for a number of reasons — inflation, loss of consumer interest, et cetera. Has this affected your restaurants at all, or are you still booming with your expansion?

My restaurants are still booming, thank God. But we've also gotten creative with our marketing. Every business has considerably felt a shift across the board, but ours wasn't a significant dip. It's the changes in the economy. People aren't getting checks like they used to. Things have changed in our ecosystem that have affected how people support businesses as a whole. What we've been able to do is we've applied more marketing to our locations to make people still want to come into the stores. If they're not coming for the food, they're coming purely for the experience. But however we get you in the door, fine.

We use more than Beyond Meat and Impossible, which is a good thing because while I love those companies, you never know what might happen in the marketplace. We've started to diversify the proteins that we use, and I'm happy we do that because now we have more options for people. I believe that the secret to continuing to keep people engaged in the business is having LTOs — limited-time offerings — new things for them to try. So we've been ramping up on putting new items on the menu for a limited time, like the chili, we're ramping up to put a salad on the menu, and we're changing our dessert to keep the relationship spicy so that we don't have to worry about dips in the marketplace.

I was actually going to ask, are there any new menu items on the way? You mentioned a salad. Is there anything else you would be able to share?

Salad is coming, and I'm working on a fish sandwich. That's fresh off the press.

The fish sandwich — when is that supposed to come out?

We haven't decided on a date yet. We're actually still in the recipe phase, but we're about 75% there, and I'm so excited about it.

The food industry is evolving to focus much more on health and wellness, plant-based alternatives, drinks like mocktails, things like that. What's your opinion on the current climate of the food and beverage industry as a whole as we push more towards health and wellness?

It's interesting. I have a bar, and we are seeing fluctuations. I'll give you an example — food is starting to do just as well as alcohol. I'm like, "Are people not drinking as much? What's happening? Are most people getting healthier?" I don't know if that's a good thing [or a] bad thing, so come back to me in a month and I'll give you a different answer. 

It's ever-evolving, and I'm a student of the game. I don't know everything. I learn something new in this business every single day.

Don't underestimate mushrooms in your diet

Is there one plant-based product or food that you feel is underrated?

King oyster mushrooms and maitake mushrooms — very underrated. People need to pay more attention to mushrooms. I came up with this idea to do a [restaurant] concept called "Shroom" because I love mushrooms that much. Mushrooms are the best replacement, in my humble opinion, [for] meat-based items because you can get the same effect. Mushrooms are the new tofu, if you ask me. Mushrooms are pretty underrated.

Do you normally eat those separately, or [do] you just use them to replace meat?

I've been a raw vegan for the last 27 days. Don't ask me why, but here we are. And I've been eating a lot of mushrooms, like marinated mushrooms, so my affinity for mushrooms has grown in the last month. I normally like sautéed mushrooms, and I've been playing with a mushroom sandwich. I haven't found the perfect recipe yet, but I've been playing with it. Hopefully, by the end of this year, I'll have a mushroom sandwich on the menu.

You came out with a cookbook last year with 91 vegan recipes. You mentioned the mushrooms that you've been playing with recently. Is there another go-to vegan recipe that you can't stop using right now?

There's a scallop mushroom recipe in the book which is really, really good. But when I tell you ... Are you vegan, by the way?

I'm not, but I'm trying to get a little bit more plant-based. I cut out red meat.

Okay. That's a good start. But you could really take ... Go to the market and get a king oyster mushroom. It looks almost like a baton. Slice it up scallop style, and put some vegan butter on it, some capers, some salt and pepper, and a little oil-based seasoning, and it is the best mock scallop you've ever had in your life. I promise you that. It's so good — the juice, the taste, the texture, everything.

Slutty Vegan is on its way to being a billion-dollar brand

You might have to kill me with this question too: You offer Slutty Fries with Signature Slut Dust. Are you able to let me know what seasonings the Slut Dust consists of?

Just know that it's a mix of sweet, spicy, salty, tangy. That's the most I can tell you. Don't ask me why all my recipes are a secret. I don't want Mondo Burger to come over and steal my recipe.

Are there any other upcoming projects you would be willing to share or anything else exciting coming up?

I'm opening in Truist Park, the baseball stadium in Atlanta, on April 1. I'm excited. It's very exciting, especially since I just opened up [in] Harlem, and a week before, I opened up [at] Georgia Tech. The openings are happening in real time, so I'm excited about that.

That'll be great to see everyone eating your food while watching a baseball game. That's really cool.

It's so cool. I'm excited about it. I [have] some other really big things coming out that I haven't publicly announced yet, but [they're] coming very soon. Everything we do is in grand fashion, and I'm excited about the growth of my business, and I'm claiming that Slutty Vegan will be a billion-dollar brand.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Learn more about the 2023 Create & Cultivate 100 List, or head to Slutty Vegan's website to check out its offerings. Keep up with Pinky Cole's latest projects on her Instagram page