On the day Aisha “Pinky” Cole was born, her father was sentenced to life in prison. Ever since, she’s hustled to change her family’s situation. In late January, she opened a restaurant — the impishly named Slutty Vegan — and she is already expanding across the South's largest city, putting food trucks on the road, offering franchises, and banking seven digits in revenue. It might also change fundamentally the way Southerners look at vegan eating. This is the story of how the South made everything bigger for Baltimore-born Pinky Cole.
In less than six months, Aisha Cole became a millionaire.
You may not recognize her name, but you've most definitely heard about her 100-percent-plant-based burger joint, adding thousands of new eaters to an already fast-moving revolution in vegan foods. If you live in Atlanta, maybe you’ve stood in line for hours to get into her restaurant on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta's Westview community. Elsewhere, maybe you’ve followed her food truck up and down Interstate 85 as it was headed to one of its daily locations around Georgia, or maybe you caught the truck on one of its national six-city tour stops. Maybe you’ve only stalked Cole’s Instagram page (now with a quarter million followers) to see if the hype was real. Or maybe you’re one of the small crew of sad folks who walk around hating on her.
No matter how you heard the word, by now you're probably familiar with the phenomenon called Slutty Vegan.
But chances are you aren't as familiar with the story of its CEO and what it took for her to reach this level of success. Aisha "Pinky" Cole, the woman with ancestor-approved red locs atop her crown and a gentle yet commanding voice, is a gigantic presence packaged in a small frame. She has a smile broad enough to bring joy to anyone in her presence while simultaneously hiding the searing pain, hurt, disappointment, fear, confusion, and anger that come with being able to see and get to know your father only during closely monitored visits in a federal prison.
Aisha “Pinky” Cole
Today, the 31-year-old Baltimore, Maryland, native is winning from her base in Atlanta. That’s not just because of her company's unbelievably rapid growth opening this year in late January, or that every celebrity from Tyler Perry to Snoop Dogg to U.S. senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker has since been "sluttified," a term coined by Pinky for anyone who’s taken a bite of her famous burgers. It’s also because Cole has worked hard to defy every negative expectation assigned to her, virtually since birth.
But it would be wrong to label the Clark Atlanta University graduate’s new food business an “overnight” success. She already had a string of them (and a few failures) behind her, despite her youth. From childhood, it seems, Pinky understood how success could change her family's life forever. A fundamental quality that makes Pinky seem effortlessly magical is her ability to push through and rise above situations and circumstances most people would rather hide from or forget. Instead, she elects to share, in the hope of inspiring others to fight for what seems impossible.
Her story begins in East Baltimore. Most may be familiar with the streets of Baltimore from their depiction on the groundbreaking HBO drama “The Wire,” which didn't stray far from the truth. The series reflected the reality of the American Dream for poor, forgotten blacks and other minorities living in the wrong ZIP codes and tax brackets. As a product of that environment, Pinky is showing the world that people in such places are full of promise and million-dollar ideas.
December 8, 1987, is a date the Cole family will never forget.
Surrounded by doctors and nurses, Ichelle Cole was lying in bed in Union Memorial Hospital's maternity ward in Baltimore. Earlier that day, when her water broke, she knew her baby was coming and that everyone except her husband, Asher Cole, would be in the delivery room as she birthed new life. It was a hard pill to swallow, but she knew she would have to do this alone.
While Ichelle was giving birth, Asher was getting an up-close look at the U.S. court system. According to court documents, from June 1984 to March 1987, Asher was running a large-scale cocaine distribution ring in Baltimore with connections to Jamaica, his and Ichelle's homeland. He was found guilty of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, alien smuggling, distribution of cocaine, and possession with intent to distribute.
The very day his baby girl came into the world, Asher’s world was being snatched away. He was sentenced to life in prison.
That's one hell of an opening page to Pinky's life story, but it isn't unique. Too many know stories like the Coles’ all too well. I, too, grew up in Baltimore, and in 1989, when I was just 4 years old, my father was incarcerated. My mother became one of the countless black mothers forced to mother their children alone and suppress their feelings of pain, neglect, and heartache because of the father's imprisonment.
As Pinky became a young woman and came to understand what her mother endured that day, she began to understand truly the magnitude of her mother's strength, and vowed to find a way to fix her family's situation permanently.
"I don't know how I did it, but I did," Ichelle Cole says today. "Ever since Pinky was growing up, she's always been that little one that wanted to just do everything. There was just something about her that was definitely different. Growing up, she was involved in all of the activities in school and shined in everything that she did all the way up to her high school days."
When most kids start high school, they are figuring out how to manipulate their parents into buying them the latest and most popular whatever. Not so much in Pinky’s case. As she began high school, it became increasingly clear to whoever knew her that she was on a mission.
Pinky saw her mother working as many as three jobs to take care of her and her siblings. Seeing that sacrifice gave Pinky all the reason and motivation to fight for greater.
And while her father sold drugs, he also owned and operated several legal businesses, which included popular nightclubs in Baltimore. While she wasn't able to witness him work, it’s clear that she gets her hustler's spirit from him.
And with those gifts from her parents, she could literally turn anything into a profit. So she did.
Cierra Sanders and Pinky met in high school and became best friends. “We used to leave school during our lunch break, and Pinky would drag me out saying, 'Come on, let's go to McDonald's,'" Sanders says. "And we would literally go to McDonald's and buy double cheeseburgers and McChickens for a dollar and come back and sell them for $2," says Sanders. That’s how she first learned of her best friend's business savvy.
"Pinky would call you in the middle of the night, at like 3 in the morning, like, 'Oh my God, I got this great business idea. How do you feel about it?' She's always had an entrepreneurial spirit, but after our first McDonald's trip, I remember saying, ‘This girl is going to be something.”
Even before the McDonald's hustle, Pinky realized she could use her popularity in school to make money. In middle school, she began throwing parties, and they weren't your average teenage parties.
"By the time Pinky turned 14, we started throwing parties where we would charge people to come," says Jaware Cole, Pinky's big brother, who's only three years her senior but has always felt the need to take care of her, like he was the dad. "And instead of being at our house, we rented neighborhood rec centers and hired a D.J."
High school kids from Baltimore's poorest to most privileged neighborhoods packed out every party. "I put Pinky's name on the promo flyer, and it went crazy,” Jaware says. “Every party we did, we were bringing home $7-8,000 off of kids just showing up to party. We kind of took over the party scene for real, and the popularity with her was good, but it's almost like it grew to stardom. It was kind of like she was ready, a born star. And I mean that literally because my mom was a performer in a popular reggae band that she started, Strykers’ Posse, and while she was pregnant with Pinky, she'd still perform on big stages in front of thousands. So, it's like Pinky was a star from birth, literally."
The dynamic brother-and-sister duo enjoyed a long run until it was time for Pinky to embark on a new journey — college, and she had her eyes set on moving to the South, Atlanta in particular.
"I prayed and asked God to protect and cover her, and as it turns out, she went to Clark Atlanta University and did exactly what she set out to do and more," Ichelle says. "You know, all of her life she's always tried to take everything to the next level. That didn't stop during her years at Clark Atlanta. If anything, her time there amplified it. And it's something about that city. Atlanta made everything bigger for Pinky."
Long lines snake continually outside the Slutty Vegan’s restaurant in Atlanta’s Westview community.
Here's the thing about coming from the "bottom": It's always been an environment that unearths America’s greatest change agents. Born and raised in Baltimore and nurtured into womanhood in Atlanta, Aisha "Pinky" Cole is most definitely shifting the culture and making healthy eating sexy—non-vegans standing in line for seven hours to eat vegan.
Within six months of opening the restaurant, Pinky purchased property for two new locations, one in Jonesboro, a city south of Atlanta with a large African-American population, and the other in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, a neighborhood in Atlanta largely known for the childhood home of the man whose dream included Pinky and Slutty Vegan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She also recently finalized a significant development deal for a reality television show. And if you've ever thought about buying a restaurant, she's now franchising and allowing you to have your very own Slutty Vegan.
We are all imperfect and on the journey of figuring out who we truly are and how we can leave our mark on the world. And Pinky's journey of self-discovery, forgiveness, healing, improvement, and building a legacy is noteworthy. It's deeper than burgers and fries for Pinky, and the fact that she's on a mission to share it, is inspiring and will undoubtedly spark the mind of both current and future entrepreneurs.
Another thing I learned about Pinky: No one tells her story better than she does.
Congratulations on everything. At just 31 years old, you have become a heavy hitter in the business world, making moves that have quickly propelled you into the big leagues.
Growing up in a Jamaican household all I knew was hustle. Not having a father in the house and my mother working two to three jobs, I always knew that I wanted to do something so that one day I could take care of my mother. But I also had that hustler's spirit and a hustler's mentality.
I just always wanted to double whatever I had going on, and I never stopped at good enough. I always wanted to just excel and exceed my parent's expectations and to be able to put my family in a position where they didn't have to work.
Did you believe that moving to Atlanta would help you reach that goal?
Most definitely. And it did. I love my city. I love Baltimore, but Atlanta is the city where I became a woman. I moved here at 17 years old to start college at the Clark Atlanta University, which was the best experience ever. I moved here, and it was just the place to be.
I knew that I needed to be here in Atlanta because it afforded me the opportunity to really be able to network with the right people.
Did you leave Atlanta immediately after graduation?
No, not immediately, but I didn't stay for long. When I graduated, I wanted to do something different because I got an opportunity working as a teacher, and I'm like, “I'm not a teacher. This is not what I want to do.” I was a teacher for about five days, then I quit and moved to Los Angeles.
I wanted to become an actress, and I did like a good two months, and then one of my sorority sisters recommended me to be a production assistant on a TV show. I did that, and everything went up from there.
Was that television show in Los Angeles?
No, it was in New York. So, I moved from L.A. to New York to Connecticut, where I was a producer for The Maury Show for three years. And during that time, I saved up a lot of money. I knew that I wanted to open up another business, so I said, why not a restaurant?
The Dancehall Queen burger.
Did you know anything about the restaurant industry?
No, I had no clue. They don't teach you about business in school. So, I had like $60,000 saved, and I opened up a business — my very own first restaurant.
I was 26 years old, and I opened Pinky's Jamaican and American Restaurant in New York on 145th Street between 7th and 8th. I was making a lot of money, so much money that I also opened up a juice bar on 139th and Lennox.
How was it as a first-time business owner with a restaurant and juice bar in Harlem at just 26?
Everything was just up, up, up. It was beautiful, and I was doing extremely well. Then, one day, as I got home around 3, I got a phone call that my restaurant was on fire.
So literally, I went from making about $35,000 a month to losing everything. I got evicted from my apartment. My car got repossessed. I had so many bills that I was in over my head. I had nothing, and I went into a depressed state.
Did you have insurance?
I had insurance, but I lost everything because I didn't have fire insurance. They don't teach you that in school. I went to Google University and YouTube University to learn everything that I learned, so I didn't know that fire insurance wasn't under the umbrella of insurance that I paid for.
That had to be a major loss.
It was, but that was the best loss that I ever got in my life because it gave me the ability to really stop, reflect, and realize what I could do differently. I remember asking God, what is this? What is happening?
Was this the first time that you really failed?
I had never in my life really failed at anything. It seemed as if everything I touched always turned to gold. So, I didn't understand it. But God was so good because two days later, I got a call to work for a popular show on the OWN Network as a casting director. I literally walked away from everything.
Did that job take you back to Los Angeles?
Yes. God literally picked me up out of that environment and helped me to make a huge shift. I moved to L.A. and was there for two years before I got a call that the show was going to fully relocate to Atlanta and they invited me to come out as well.
Something in my spirit told me that coming back to Atlanta was the right move. I absolutely love this city. [A fact worth noting: Only two months after Slutty Vegan’s opening, as a producer, Cole was part of the team that picked up an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Reality Program for their work on "Iyanla: Fix My Life," which airs on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network .]
Did you think of opening Slutty Vegan as soon as you got back to Atlanta?
I started running five miles a day and I was really just focusing on me and really getting my mind together. I didn't know it, but it was like I was getting ready for the big game.
Then, one day I was sitting in the house, and it was really late, but I was hungry. I'm vegan, and I wanted some good food, but there was nowhere for me to go. So I said, what can I think of that I can quickly put together for a restaurant that will serve a vegan like me late at night.
Is this how Slutty Vegan was born?
Yup, I sat up on my bed, and I thought, Slutty Vegan. It just came to me like a light bulb. I immediately went in the kitchen and started thinking of recipes and names like Sloppy Toppy, One Night Stand, Fussy Hussy. And the next thing I know, I was in a shared kitchen cooking food.
Did people begin coming right away?
Every day during the first week, I had like four customers, and I remember the prayer I said, "God, this business is important to me. I need you to really show me the way."
Then, one day, one of my colleagues at the shared kitchen tasted my food and put it on her Instagram. After that, Slutty Vegan just blew up overnight.
Every single day, hundreds of people stand in line, which I promise I'm working on, supporting my business at both the food truck and the restaurant. And the numbers still grow every single day. I wish I could describe the feeling.
And the line goes on forever …
When you think about your journey, what comes to mind?
I'm just so humble because everything that I went through in my life from my father being absent in the home to me losing my business to me shifting and moving from state to state—all of those things collectively had to work out for me to be in this position that I'm in.
And now that I'm engulfed in it, I realize what separates me from the people who quit is that I didn't give up and I kept going.
I had so many business ideas and opportunities that didn't work. I tried so many things that I wanted to do that didn't work, but I just kept going in a direction of the things that I wanted to do. And I stayed the course, and everything worked out, and now I'm here, Slutty Vegan.
What made you keep going?
I loved everything that I was doing, and giving up was not an option. One thing about me is that I don't believe in quitters. I ain't no quitter. I don't care if I've got to bet my bottom dollar, I will not stop until I get what I want. I'm working to make sure that my family is taken care of. That's what I do it for.
What has been your greatest reward in life?
My greatest reward in life is knowing that I'm making my parents proud.
I believe that I'm living through my mom or she's living through me. My mom's a musician in Baltimore, a radio personality, and she was a dancer when she came to America. She had so many big dreams, and I believe that having children kind of stunted those dreams. I want to be able to give her the life that she has always wanted. She's done such a great job with me being a single mom. As an immigrant growing up, coming to the States and then having children with my father who went away to prison, leaving her to do everything by herself, she has sacrificed so much. I don't want her to have to work ever again.
I do it for my dad who literally missed time with his kids because of poor decision making, and he went away, and now he's in Jamaica.
What's next for Slutty Vegan?
My intention is to make Slutty Vegan the new fix-it, the new McDonald's, but bigger and better. I want to scale this business and franchise it so that everybody in America can get the opportunity, whether vegan or not, to say that they had a good cheeseburger and that it wasn't going to contribute to diabetes, cancer and a lot of other diseases that the people in our community are diagnosed with from eating unhealthy food.
It's an interesting thing when vegan is sexy, and that's a movement that I'm spreading. I want everyone to know that we can do this. Sharing my testimony and being able to teach others about a healthier lifestyle is really rewarding for me because I know I'm here to change lives, and that feels good.