How Pinky Cole used Instagram to make Slutty Vegan’s burgers a viral hit IRL

Anatomy of a “viral” restaurant’s social media explosion

Pinky Cole Slutty Vegan Atlanta

Photograph courtesy of Slutty Vegan

The first time I visited Slutty Vegan, there was a woman seated in a plastic chair by the door at 12:30 p.m.—the first in line for when the Westview restaurant would open at 4 p.m. Over the next three hours, the line grew to the length of two blocks, at least 200 people deep. One vegan guest brought two nonvegan friends to experience the sheer excitement of it all and, of course, to taste the plant-based burgers, which boast provocative names such as One Night Stand and Ménage á Trois and are doused in a messy, orange-hued special sauce. “It’s a beautiful day today, but I would have waited in the rain,” she told me. Another woman in line perched her laptop on a windowsill, working while she waited. Similar lines have formed pretty much every day Slutty Vegan has been open, since its debut on January. (And it’s impossible to ignore that almost everyone visiting is black—not the typical mass audience associated with the vegan movement.) There are even memes concerning people who discover the loves of their lives while stuck in the Slutty Vegan line.

This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to Atlanta, either: in mid-February, owner Pinky Cole kicked off a Slutty Vegan national pop-up tour in New York that drew a line 500-people deep in Harlem and ultimately served 900 bundled-up patrons in 36-degree temperatures.

The Slutty Vegan concept was born nine months ago, when Cole had a light-bulb moment in which she decided to create “healthy junk food”—vegan burgers and fries—wrapped in sexy marketing packaging. She received her food service permit from the city last July—a moment, memorialized on the company’s Instagram feed, which now boasts 160,000 followers and counting. From that point, Cole’s business grew from serving burgers out of a commercial kitchen, to having a food truck, to opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant (and two food trucks), to the national four-city tour.

“On the surface you can call it a phenomenon,” says Cole. “It’s really the result of being in alignment. I’ve had almost 25 years of paving and grinding. I have been doing this a really long time.”

Pinky Cole Slutty Vegan Atlanta
Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole

Photograph courtesy of Slutty Vegan

Cole grew up in the DC area—her Jamaican mom was a local celebrity who had a reggae band called the Strykers’ Posse, she says, and her dad was a “big time drug dealer” who did 20 years in prison. Cole says she was popular and “grew up knowing everybody,” picking up street smarts and hustle along the way. She says that as a middle schooler, she earned $4,000 per week as a party promoter. At 16, she says, she’d buy $1 McChicken sandwiches from the local McDonald’s and sell them back to students at her high school for $2. “I sold out every day,” she says.

After graduating from Clark Atlanta, she set her sights on becoming a television producer—eventually working as a producer on The Maury Show. With the money she earned on Maury, she started a Jamaican-American restaurant in Harlem called Pinky’s in August 2014. It too had lines out the door, but it burnt down in July 2016 due to a grease fire. “I’m not sorry [that happened],” says Cole. “Had that not happened, we wouldn’t be chatting now.”

The trauma of losing Pinky’s sent Cole into a period of reflection and rebuilding. She started working out, cleaned up her credit, and took a job as a casting director with Iyanla Vanzant’s show Fix My Life on Oprah’s OWN Network, which brought her back to Atlanta.

While working on Fix My Life, Cole, who grew up vegetarian and became vegan four years ago, decided to venture back into the world of food. She settled on her concept of plant-based burgers because it was something fun and easy she could cook herself, using Impossible Burger patties as the base for her creative toppings. She also had a broader mission to serve the community healthier food. She began cooking in a shared kitchen, but on her first day, she sold a discouraging four burgers.

Then came a first tipping point. Her friend, well-known vegan Atlanta chef Dymetra Pernell—aka the “Plant-based Princess”—made her popular ice cream in the same shared kitchen as Cole. Pernell mentioned Slutty Vegan’s burgers to her more than 25,000 Instagram followers. The next week, Cole served 100 people—and realized the impact social media could have on her business. But she quickly nixed the idea of showing beautiful staged photos of the burgers—contrary to pretty much every food-blogging best practice. “I know that people eat with their eyes,” she says. “But my food doesn’t look good. It’s sloppy. A burger is not sexy.”

Instead, Cole decided to capitalize on people’s reactions when they first encountered the Umami-laden flavor bomb her burgers deliver. “We [decided] to show videos of them having the realest, rawest experience of chewing burger and literally having an orgasm-like experience—but guilt-free,” Cole says.

The idea worked, and customers started posting the videos themselves, trying her food for the first time—and getting so-called “sluttified.” To boost the signal, Cole began reaching out to a few select celebs. She sent a short message—and a burger—to influencer Shod Santiago, who agreed to post a video to his 500,000 Instagram followers. Cole also asked her Fix My Life boss Vanzant to give the burger a try. That video, which has been reposted many times on Slutty Vegan’s feed, shows a close-up of a curious Vanzant chewing the burger and immediately commenting to the camera, “So what’s on this? Little things keep falling out of this, and I’m eating them off the paper.” She chews a little more and there’s an audible “Mmm.” “I love this,” she says, eyebrows furrowed and head tilting, still quizzical about what exactly she’s eating.

“Iyanla sent me the video and I posted it to our page—it was like her giving [Slutty Vegan] her natural endorsement,” Cole says. “She didn’t even need to post on her [social networks] to create influence.”

With each video, Slutty Vegan’s Instagram following further exploded. Outgrowing the commercial kitchen, Cole bought a food truck, which drew more celebrities, both arriving to the truck and asking Cole to send burgers. Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri. Taraji P. Henson. Tyler Perry. Porsha Williams. Tiffany Haddish. Jazze Pha. Da Brat. Cole says she didn’t pay any celebs to try the burgers—although she did comp their meals. Those videos, she says, are the “TMZ of food.”

“We were getting a million impressions every week to our page—and our followers truly wondered Who’s gonna be a Slutty Vegan today?” she says.

Cole also created suspense by waiting to reveal exactly where the Slutty Vegan truck would be until just two to three hours before parking it. “People love surprises—especially surprises around food,” says Cole. There’s something else they love: “This whole theme for Slutty Vegan had everything to do with sex, being provocative, escorting—dirty mind, clean body.”

Slutty Vegan’s Instagram is run solely by Cole and driven by whatever idea happens to inspire her. Recently, while getting her nails done, she had an idea to post a series of patrons from different countries saying, “I love Slutty Vegan” in their native language—the intention being to show that her fan base is more diverse than people may realize. “Before I post I’m always thinking, will it make people laugh, or think, or feel emotional? Why do we care about this?” As she expands she knows she won’t be able to continue posting everything herself, but for now, it works.

As Slutty Vegan continues its ascent, Cole wants to further encourage healthy eating in the black community and more strongly push the point that veganism is colorless and classless. “It still hasn’t hit me,” she says of her instant success. “Yet I know this is supposed to be happening. It’s a very humbling feeling I don’t take for granted: Out of the billions of people in world, [I get] to be the spokesperson for a historic movement.”