WASHINGTON — Pinky Cole is on a mission to change the way the world views vegan food — and it’s not with a bowl of quinoa and a slab of tofu.
Her fare of choice is more along the lines of a sauce-covered patty, piled high with pickles, shredded lettuce, “cheese” and “bacon,” all sandwiched between a soft Hawaiian bun. And it’s creations like this sandwich, dubbed the One Night Stand, that generate long lines, sometimes lasting hours, at Cole’s Atlanta-based restaurant The Slutty Vegan.
“The secret is in the sauce,” said Cole, a Baltimore native who had a successful career in television production before pivoting to food in 2018.
“That is part of the reason people are standing in line, because the sauce is so damn good.”
And that may be true, but there are a few other things at play that make Cole’s business so popular among vegans and omnivores, alike. First, there’s the name.
“It’s like propaganda: We put it out there and we get you to pay attention,” said Cole, who explained that a “slutty vegan” is someone who indulges in the things that they love, guilt-free.
“This has nothing to do with sex. Sex is just the selling point to get you in, and once I have you in, I’m walking you in a direction where you can see food in a different way.”
Like many vegans, Cole grew tired of the misconception that surrounds plant-based food — namely, that it’s bland and boring.
With a menu of sandwiches such as the Heaux Boy (vegan shrimp tossed in a New Orleans-style batter, served on a Hawaiian bun with pickles, lettuce and secret sauce) and the Fussy Hussy (a plant-based patty with vegan American cheese, shredded lettuce, onion, pickle and vegan mayo on a Hawaiian bun), she is selling familiar flavors while introducing a new diet — often to diners who never considered vegan accessible.
“To see so many people in the African American community jump on a movement like this — you know, in our communities, we love soul food, and veganism and being plant-based was a rich, white lifestyle. … So to see so many people of all hues come together in the name of food, it’s such a beautiful feeling,” Cole said.
Recently, Cole embarked on a six-city Slutty Vegan tour to test out her concept in other markets. Her New York pop-up attracted some 900 customers, and her Baltimore stop drew 600 in the snow. Cole said she is looking to expand her brand (the D.C. area is a consideration), and one day hopes to be in the same league as the fast food “big boys” — just hold the animal products.
But in the meantime, she wants her small menu of sandwiches to be the start of a larger conversation.
“You don’t have to be this glorified vegan; you could just eat healthier,” Cole said.
“We’re welcoming you into this community and showing you, ‘Listen, you can have better mental clarity; you can have better energy; you can lose some weight; you can limit the diseases in your family and in your community if you start to eat this way’ — even if it starts at vegan comfort food.”
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