Operations

Slutty Vegan may be coming soon to a city near you

The plant-based concept backed by an investment from restaurateur Danny Meyer is on a national tour this summer to hunt for potential locations. And founder Pinky Cole Hayes is working with Pepsi to find the best Black-owned restaurants.
Pinky Cole Hayes
Pinky Cole Hayes hopes to double the unit count for the Slutty Vegan brand by the end of next year, including her second brand, Bar Vegan. | Photo courtesy of Slutty Vegan

Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole Hayes is hitting the road this summer.

The Atlanta-based operator of the plant-based fast-casual Slutty Vegan is planning to add about 15 restaurants over the next 18 months and she has launched a national Gettin’ Slutty Tour to get a feel for markets that would be right for the brand.

The first stop was in Los Angeles on Sunday, where the brand took over Taco Mell, for example, offering several menu items from Slutty Vegan.

It was a sentimental return for Cole Hayes. The last time she tried to bring a Slutty Vegan popup to Los Angeles, it happened to be the day in 2019 that Nipsey Hussle was shot in his South LA clothing store, not far from where the Slutty Vegan event was planned.

This year, however, the line for the one-day event stretched down the street.

The tour carries on this week in Fishers, Indiana (June 4 at Tako Seoul); Chicago (June 6 at Native Foods, 218 S. Clark St.); St Louis (June 8, Honey Bee Biscuits); Nashville (June 14-15, Blavity House Party); Louisville, Kentucky (June 15, Wingin It Wing Wars); Lanham, Maryland (June 18, location not specified); Newport News, Virginia (June 21, Wine and Design); and Portsmouth, Virginia (June 22, the food truck will be at 1915 Victory Blvd.)

The food truck will also make several appearances in Atlanta at Render ATL, Passport to the World, the Georgia World Congress Center, and the Georgia Food & Wine Festival.

Slutty Vegan Truck

The Slutty Vegan truck. | Photo courtesy of Slutty Vegan.

For Cole Hayes, it’s market research.

“If you go to a location and it goes extremely well, we know it’s a location we want to be in,” she said in an interview before the Los Angeles event. “All of the popups do extremely well, but you have to get a feel for the tone and the vibe.”

In the struggling world of plant-based fast food, Slutty Vegan has been a standout brand that others have attempted to emulate.

The brand won a $25 million investment in 2022 from famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments. Slutty Vegan has grown to 13 units, mostly in Georgia, but several are in New York and one in Dallas.

This year, Cole Hayes plans to open a Slutty Vegan in Baltimore—her hometown—with a second unit coming there next year. Another location is coming to the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

And Cole Hayes is growing a second concept called Bar Vegan, which has one location in Atlanta, but will open a second in Baltimore this year. It’s a cocktail-focused concept with drink-friendly vegan dishes, and a playful vibe similar to the core brand.

Down the road, Cole Hayes said she would like to launch franchising. But, for now, her focus is on operations and “getting people excited about the brand again.”

Slutty Vegan was a forerunner in the plant-based movement that gave birth to countless restaurants hoping to become the next McDonald’s, but without any meat or animal-based products. Many had menus built around meat-like products like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods (Slutty Vegan uses Beyond Meat for its burgers).

And many of those plant-based concepts have closed or are struggling as the initial excitement about meat analogs has dissipated.

Cole Hayes, however, said there is still demand for plant-based fast food. “We just have to continue to find ways to make it cool,” she said. “I am finding ways to continue to make vegan cool.”

The brand is known for plant-based burgers with names like the Fussy Hussy or the Hollywood Hooker topped with Slut Sauce, with fries dusted with Slut Dust on the side.

Cole Hayes has also become somewhat of a beacon for Black-owned entrepreneurs.

Last month, she was named ambassador to the Pepsi Dig In platform, which is designed to showcase and support Black-owned restaurants.

Over the past three years, the program has offered financing, as well as mentorship and advice, to Black-owned restaurant operators—including both Cole and her husband Derrick Hayes, who owns the Big Dave’s Cheesesteak brand.

Big Dave’s has eight brick-and-mortar units, and has sold about 15 franchised locations, she noted.

“There are so many Black-owned restaurants in America that don’t get the recognition they deserve,” said Cole Hayes. “And this organization is really making it their business to be able to put these people into position by offering them resources, offering them mentorship and coaching.

“And I think that’s what’s needed,” she added. “Some of the best businesses you never heard of because they haven’t had the exposure, and Pepsi Dig In is doing just that.

Each year, the Dig In program has featured Black-owned restaurants in a Restaurant Royalty Residency in Las Vegas, in partnership with MGM Resorts International. Those selected this year will also receive things like POS hardware from Square, $4,000 in Yelp digital media credits and amplification by EatOkra, a database for Black-owned restaurants, and they will be enrolled in Black Restaurants Deliver, a partnership with Figure 8 Logistics.

Fans are invited to submit their favorite Black-owned restaurant on the website DigInShowLove.com by June 30, and they can win prizes like a trip for two to football’s biggest game in New Orleans, or a chef’s table experience in New York City.

Last year, for example, the residency featured six Black-owned restaurants: 2 Chainz’s Esco Restaurant & Tapas (Atlanta); Cranky Granny’s Sweet Rolls (Pflugerville, Texas and Cole Hayes says she is a fan); Taylor’s Tacos (Chicago), Blk Swan (Baltimore), LoLo’s on The Water (New York), and Bridgetown Roti (Los Angeles). Dishes and cocktails from the concepts were featured at Mandalay Bay’s Libertine Social and at Luxor’s Public House.

Separately, Cole Hayes has long been a believer in sharing the spotlight.

At Slutty Vegan and Bar Vegan this year, for example, the menu will soon include cakes and other desserts from vegan bakery Angela’s Cakes by Angela Simmons, including a fried Oreo treat.

“If you know anything about my personal brand, I really care about entrepreneurs, people who are moving and shaking and trying to realize their dreams,” said Cole Hayes. “And as long as I can continue to do that, especially with big organizations like Pepsi, then the reach is strengthened, and we can get more people to understand that the help is there.”

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