“Let me tell you something about me,” says Aisha “Pinky” Cole. “I’m so confident in myself that two things are either going to happen—either you’re going to love me and be inspired, or you’re going to be intimidated.”
During a recent appearance on the nationally syndicated radio show The Breakfast Club, these words from Cole stood out. The quote exemplifies who and what Cole represents: At just 34, she has built a vegan empire while becoming a cultural phenomenon. And no, these words of power and self-esteem aren’t being thrown around loosely. Four years ago, Cole created Slutty Vegan* in Atlanta. You’ve most likely heard of it, eaten it or wanted to eat it. And if you -haven’t, your chance to do so has just increased, as Cole is scheduled to open a new Slutty Vegan every month this year in a different city.
The rise of the provocatively named plant-based burger joint has seemingly been discussed everywhere. This summer, you’ll also be able to buy Cole’s first cookbook, Eat Plants B*tch (Simon & Schuster), and make your own -mouthwatering vegan dishes. “It’s plant-based recipes for the meat eater, because my target audience is not the vegan,” she explains.
In August 2018, Cole—who goes by Pinky, a nickname given to her at birth by her godmother because she came out so pink—opened Slutty Vegan in a shared kitchen. Several weeks later, as the brand’s popularity grew, she launched her food truck. Four months later, on January 13, 2019—a date that holds special significance for Cole, as it is the anniversary of the founders’ day for her beloved Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.—she opened her first brick-and-mortar store. By 2020, amid a global pandemic, she cut the ribbon on her second and third locations in Atlanta. As the world seemed to be falling apart, the Slutty Vegan brand was experiencing powerful growth, drawing daily celebrity sightings and massive crowds of people from all over the world.
Chaka Zulu, Atlanta music veteran, cofounder of the Disturbing Tha Peace label and longtime manager for rapper Ludacris, was one of Cole’s early customers. He then became her manager. “She showed such grace in success,” Zulu recalls, describing what so impressed him about Cole. “Not in the long-term success, but in the success of the moment, which can make you stop working. That affirmation of 3,000 people standing in line on the first day could have slowed her down. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of people. And I saw her, in the moment, be graceful to receive it. And then I saw it propel her, all within that one day. And that’s why I was like, Yeah, she’s got it.”
The Baltimore native successfully opened three locations created a new bar and restaurant concept, Bar Vegan, in one of Atlanta’s highest-profile developments; became a multimillionaire; and started The Pinky Cole Foundation, which has provided scholarships to juvenile offenders in Atlanta, created scholarship funds for students enrolled at Cole’s alma mater, Clark Atlanta University (CAU), and donated 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to feed those who are food insecure. And that’s just in her first two years in business.
Today, almost four years after serving her first vegan burger out of the shared kitchen, she has established herself as a philanthropist, a humanitarian and an unstoppable, moneymaking, money-giving entrepreneurial genius. That’s because it’s much bigger than burgers and fries for Cole. For her, the magic is in serving her community.
Oscar–winning actress Viola Davis was introduced to Slutty Vegan on Instagram like everyone else. Intrigued, she booked the food truck while on set filming. From there, the relationship grew, and she has now become one of Cole’s biggest supporters.
“We were in a pandemic where we were watching George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery and Breonna Taylor on a
loop,” Davis reflects. “And it was a constant reminder that we were, and have been in this country, the leftovers. It’s amazing how people come to life when they are cared for, when they’re -literally thought about in any way—their health, their joy, their comfort. And perhaps the secret sauce to her company, other than absolutely awesome food, is that she cares about her people.”
Cole’s service to her people would actually lead her to the love of her life. But while she may be open to share much of her life with the world, she’s been mum about a few things, including her beau. So we decided to pay the Slutty Vegan CEO a visit to get the scoop on all the things that we couldn’t Google.
Tucked away 30 minutes outside of Atlanta is a community filled with pristine luxury homes that for sure belong on Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing—or even on the early-2000s documentary-style show MTV Cribs. We’re given two addresses—one for the security gate and another for the recently purchased home of Cole, her significant other and their baby girl. Everything inside the gate is top-notch, including the 51,000-square-foot country club and the 27-hole golf course you drive past on the way to Cole’s home. The residents here might as well be royalty.
A visit to her Instagram feed reveals Cole’s new motherhood, but while she shared glimpses of her bundle of joy, she kept the world guessing about the identity of the father. “To be honest, there was a business concern that I am in the vegan community and he’s not,” she admits. “But what I realize is who cares what people say. Even though we’re different, we can still exist together and still love each other—because we are tapped into each other’s hearts. And,” she adds defiantly, “whoever’s got something to say about that can kick rocks.” It’s clear that Cole goes hard for who and what she loves.
Her partner’s name is Derrick Hayes—but if you’re around him long enough, you’ll hear Cole and those closest to him affectionately call him D. An entrepreneur and philanthropist born and raised in West Philadelphia, and now the father of three girls, Hayes smiles with approval as his woman firmly shuts down the potential haters. “Yeah,” he says, looking at her with admiration. “She said it. We don’t judge each other.”
“I think that our relationship is symbolic of what the world should look and feel like,” says Cole, whose two best friends separately encouraged her to date the fellow entrepreneur. “It should look and feel like a place where there is no judgment. Just because you might not believe in the things that I believe in, doesn’t mean that we can’t come together in friendship, love and spirituality.”
In fact, Cole and Hayes have been loving, supporting, building, creating and enjoying each other in plain view for a while. The public saw them together all the time but just didn’t know how deeply connected they were. As the CEO and owner of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks in Atlanta, Hayes, too, is one of the city’s most captivating entrepreneurs, philanthropists and cultural leaders.
Five years ago, fellow Philly native and Grammy Award–winning rapper and actress Eve stopped by his first restaurant, a 700-square-foot space at a gas station, while filming a movie. Blown away by just how delicious and authentic her cheesesteak was, and how well it represented their hometown, Eve promised to post her chicken cheesesteak to her social media accounts, and it’s been all uphill from there. Celebrities like the Migos, Meek Mill and Lena Waithe have also been fervent supporters, but it’s the lines of everyday Atlantans wrapped around the corner at his two locations that tell Hayes how far he’s come.
Actress, producer, director and Emmy Award–winning writer Waithe first found Hayes on Instagram and started rocking with him while he was working out of the gas station. She believes what makes him special is that “he doesn’t run away from his past. He embraces all of himself, and his business feels inclusive.”
The 34-year-old seems to have it all together now, but that wasn’t always the case. Like many young Black men in inner cities throughout the country, who lack resources and feel there’s no other way to provide for themselves and their families, Hayes once fell into the trap of selling drugs. “I got arrested, and I was looking at some time,” he reveals. Hayes recalls going to court every day thinking that his life was over. “I thought, If I get out of this, I’m straightening my life up. I remember before walking into the courtroom when I was supposed to get sentenced, my sister called and prayed for me. That day was the third time the DA didn’t show up. The judge said he would give the DA five minutes and then he would throw the case out,” he says.
Hayes admits those were the longest five minutes of his life, waiting to hear if his sister’s prayers had worked. Those five minutes until the judge hit the gavel and threw his case out also changed his story. The entrepreneur continues to be deeply thankful for his second chance. “While I was walking out, the detective who was supposed to testify against me was coming in,” he remembers, “and I realized how close I came to losing my freedom, and now I had to change my life.”
He’s reflective as he recalls losing his father and best friend, who he called “Big Dave,” to lung cancer. Hayes had promised him that he would do great things in life, and feels he can finally say that promise has been kept.
Cole’s father, too, imparted the kind of drive that continues to propel her to places that might seem out of reach for many. Few people know that on the day Cole was born, her father’s future was snatched away as he was sentenced to life in prison. He had been found guilty of operating a criminal enterprise that included distribution of cocaine and -possession with intent to distribute. He also owned and operated several legal businesses, including popular nightclubs in Baltimore. He remained in prison throughout Cole’s childhood, physically unable to be a present father for her. However, she sees her hustler’s spirit as his gift to her.
For both Cole and Hayes, their business ventures aren’t just about food—they’re about being of and for the people. And one thing about the Baltimore and Philly natives: They really love Atlanta and go hard for the community there. “We are able to use this one thing over everything, and that’s love—not just for ourselves, but for the community,” says Hayes, recalling how, when the pandemic hit, he went straight into service mode, feeding frontline workers at nearly 40 hospitals across metro Atlanta.
Giving of themselves is what brought the two together. “Remember we tried to bail out 100 inmates the second, third day of knowing each other?” Hayes says to Cole. “We couldn’t do it, because it was last minute. And then, sad to say, I think the following week Rayshard Brooks got murdered. That was our first time really giving back together. When we did that, I saw how powerfully people resonated with us doing something together. So we wound up saying, ‘All right, well, let’s build a business together.’”
That was the beginning of their joint entrepreneurial legacy. “We started a life insurance campaign, where we provide Black men in Atlanta who make $30,000 or less with life insurance that they don’t have to pay for,” explains Cole, who adds that Prudential recently signed on to the venture as a partner. “And to give back in the name of Rayshard Brooks, we partnered with Clark Atlanta to provide $600,000 worth of scholarships for kids, and a brand-new car and life insurance for his family. We bought this house in August of 2021, but before this, in December of 2020, we bought another house as an investment property. And we’re about to buy some more.”
The two also opened Dinkies—get it, Derrick + Pinky—a vegan Philly cheesesteak concept inside Pinky’s Bar Vegan, and this past Thanksgiving, they fed the entire city of Atlanta. Meanwhile, the ink is almost dry on a deal with a major retail company for Hayes’s egg rolls and seasoning line and Cole’s chicken dip, spinach dip and vegan bacon. The duo is now creating and establishing partnerships and collaborations with major brands such as Pepsi and Puma to push the culture forward.
In the midst of our conversation, I hear their assistant confirming their plans to fly out to Denver the next morning to meet with Robert F. Smith, the Black billionaire tech investor and philanthropist who paid off the student loan debt of Morehouse College’s graduating class of 2019. Cole and Hayes are building relationships and making deals that young, Black restaurant entrepreneurs couldn’t dream of until now. Next up, Hayes will open a new location not too far from one of Cole’s current spots. And over the next two years, he’s planning 10 additional locations and eight food trucks. And Cole, who worked as a television producer before becoming a restaurateur, is going back to her journalism and entertainment roots. “I’m doing a documentary called Sluttify,” she says. “It’s about the media rise of Slutty Vegan during the pandemic. I also just created Slutty Productions, and I’m doing a show with journalist Jacque Reid about those who are Black and missing in America, because we need to amplify those stories.”
As we’re talking, Cole’s mom is nestled on the couch in the family’s living room cooing to her granddaughter, D Ella Hayes, while bonding with Hayes’s 88-year-old grandmother, who now lives with them. The family Cole and Hayes have created together is simply beautiful. “Now that I look back at 2020, it was really love at first sight,” says Cole, who just signed a shoe and handbag deal with a major shoe company, for a line to debut later this year. “But at the time, we didn’t know that’s what it was.”
Now, everyone is basking in the love Cole and Hayes have for each other and for their community. “I think people look at them and see themselves,” Waithe says. “They inspire others to take their destiny into their own hands. They make it clear that the road was long and difficult, but they continue to wake up every day and get things done. I admire them both a great deal.” While y’all are focused on “Ciara’s Prayer,” it’s Pinky and Derrick’s prayer—confidence, philanthropic heart, soul mate vibes and a Midas touch—for us.
Jennifer Ogunsola (@jenniferogunsola) is an Atlanta-based writer and creator of the Story to Tell Project, a platform which shares personal accounts that aim to inspire, impact and uplift others.
*Essence Ventures founder and chairman Richelieu Dennis is an investor in Slutty Vegan.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.
January/February 2022 Cover Credits
Photographer, Drea Nicole.
Stylist, Jeremy Haynes.
Stylist’s assistant, Marc Phillips.
For Cole: Hair, Latoya “MzLadyLox” Mincey.
For Cole: Makeup, Sheree Brannon.
For Hayes: Hair, Akhir “Ak” Childs.
For Hayes: Grooming, Khalid “Lid” Cobbs.
Manicure, Tiffany Everett.
Prop stylist, Yajeel Brown.
Prop stylist’s assistant, Summer St. John.