Becoming a vegan didn’t stop Pinky Cole’s cravings for fast food. When she got sick of not being able to find the vegan options she wanted, she decided to solve the problem herself. So in 2018 she opened Slutty Vegan, an Atlanta-based restaurant designed to upend expectations with plant-based burgers that could taste good and be a little fun too.
Other fast-food chains might have the Whopper or the Big Mac — Slutty Vegan has the One Night Stand, loaded with vegan cheese, vegan bacon, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato, and the Super Slut, with guacamole, jalapeño and vegan cheese.
Since it opened, Slutty Vegan has gained attention from celebrities like Snoop Dogg, Tiffany Haddish and Usher. People caught wind of the trendy new spot, and lines spilled out the door. A visit to Slutty Vegan is designed to feel like going to a party: First-time customers are called “virgins” and cheered.
“We have amazing vegan restaurants in Atlanta, Georgia but I tagged on an experience to it to help people reimagine food,” said Cole. The name, she said, has helped as well. “If I would have named it Pinky’s Vegan, I probably wouldn’t have had lines out the door.”
Now Cole is facing her biggest test yet: expanding Slutty Vegan during the pandemic. She’s planning to venture beyond her home base for a total of about 13 restaurants within a year and a half.
“We are about to branch out outside of Atlanta and have Slutty Vegans everywhere,” she said. Alabama is on deck. Beyond that, the company didn’t specifying where they’ll be, but Cole noted that she’s targeting dense locations with few vegan options. The company plans to finance the expansion with its own capital and grants from municipalities. It’s also open to possible relationships with investors, said Jason Crain, the company’s chief revenue officer. “Right now we’re not planning on going out to raise any additional capital,” he said, noting that fundraising is “up for consideration.”
Taking a local hit to new cities is always a challenge. For one thing, there’s the chance that food that resonates in one region won’t take off with consumers in another. For another, there’s the new expenses, like real estate and hiring staff.
Cole has opened two restaurants during the pandemic so far, bringing her current number of brick-and-mortar locations to three, plus two food trucks. (One of the restaurant locations has temporarily shuttered because of damage to a nearby building.) This month, Cole also closed a $1.4 million deal for a new headquarters for the chain in Atlanta’s Edgewood district.
Expansion could be especially challenging right now. A horrifying number of restaurants have been unable to survive the blow dealt by the pandemic. Nationwide, about 110,000 restaurants — or 17% of all US restaurants — have closed this year, according to the National Restaurant Association. Roughly 10,000 of those have shuttered over the past three months, the association said.
But the company believes it’s the right time to expand, according to Crain. Slutty Vegan’s revenue has increased by over 100% this year, he said. And they want to build on that momentum before someone else does.
“We want to make sure that we’re not making it easier for our competitors and others to enter this space,” he said. “It really boils down to striking while the iron is hot.”
Cole is confident she can make it work. The crisis could have ended Slutty Vegan. But the brand is thriving, she said.
“I have done the most business that I’ve ever done,” she said.
An opportune moment
When Cole started Slutty Vegan, mainstream fast food restaurants weren’t serving plant-based meals.
“I know, because I would have been eating them,” said Cole, who has been vegan for seven years.
But, she noted, when she opened Slutty Vegan, it was “the opportune time.” In 2018, interest in plant-based alternatives to animal products was increasing thanks in part to a significant shift in the kinds of alternatives on offer. The following year, major fast food chains started adding plant-based meals to their menus.
In 2019, Burger King tested out its Impossible Whopper and quickly rolled it out nationally. Since then, Dunkin’ and Starbucks (SBUX) have started selling plant-based breakfast sandwiches, and McDonald’s (MCD) has announced a new line of plant-based products, including a McPlant burger. And throughout the pandemic, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (BYND), which both make plant-based meat alternatives, have greatly expanded their retail footprints, making the protein even more available to interested customers. The proliferation of the trend may make it easier for Cole to introduce the concept to new cities.
And serving only vegan food helped her avoid some of the supply chain pitfalls other restaurants faced during the pandemic.
When the country’s major meat processors paused production at some of their plants because workers fell ill with Covid-19, restaurants had a hard time sourcing affordable meat. Even Wendy’s (WEN) reported that it was running low. Cole said she didn’t have supply chain issues at her restaurants.
Another thing that helped boost sales during the pandemic: Slutty Vegan’s status as a business owned by a Black woman.
Around the time that Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country this spring and summer, Cole clocked a jump in sales.
“We noticed that we just got an influx of people wanting to support small, black-owned, women-owned businesses,” she said.
Another crucial growth engine: Buzz around the brand. The party atmosphere at Slutty Vegan restaurants is a key part of its strategy. If people are excited about visiting the store, they’ll be willing to shell out for meals that can cost up to $19 each.
“It’s like going to Disney world or going to a concert,” Crain said. “We bring the talent to you, the talent is entertaining, they’re going to engage you, you’re going to eat well, and you’re going to feel fulfilled after you leave our establishments.”
Celebrity interest in Slutty Vegan has remained strong.
If you scroll through the brand’s Instagram account, which has over 400,000 followers, you’ll see videos of celebrities lauding the brand or waiting in line.
One post shows rapper Offset making burgers in Slutty Vegan’s food truck, and another features former pro basketball player Dikembe Mutombo standing in front of it. One video shows rapper and activist Common talk up Slutty Vegan as he encourages listeners to vote.
Sustaining growth will be crucial as Slutty vegan expands. That type of excitement could help. Cole has also set up pop ups in other cities to spread the word and get people interested.
“We made it cool, which is the most beautiful thing of it all,” said Cole. “We’ve been able to infuse veganism and the food into the culture.”