Our favorite Black-owned restaurant owners are repping for the culture!
A pair of Atlanta entrepreneurs are making history as the first pair of restaurateurs to grace the cover of ESSENCE.
According to ESSENCE, Aisha “Pinky” Cole and Derrick Hayes are the owners of Atlanta-based restaurants Slutty Vegan and Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, respectively. Both entrepreneurs have built a name for themselves at just 34-years-old, launching restaurants in the southern states that rival most legacy home eateries. Their love of food and community brought them together, and now the couple have made history, gracing the Jan/Feb cover for Essence magazine, becoming the first restaurateurs to do so.
Cole, affectionately known as Pinky, a nickname given to her at birth by her godmother, opened her plant-based burger joint, Slutty Vegan, in August 2018. Starting off in a shared kitchen, Cole quickly worked herself out of the space, launching her food truck several weeks later due to the brand’s growing popularity. Four months after that, on January 13, 2019, Cole opened her first brick-and-mortar location. Now, almost four years later, the Baltimore native is a multimillionaire and well-respected philanthropist.
Not only has Slutty Vegan continued to grow, even the ongoing pandemic couldn’t slow Cole down. With the success of her restaurant, she has made it her business to give back in equal measure, launching The Pinky Cole Foundation where she’s been able to provide scholarships to juvenile offenders in Atlanta and create scholarships for students at her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University (CAU). She has also donated more than 100,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to those battling food insecurity. Cole’s generosity and delicious plant-based burgers have attracted celebrities from all over, one of her biggest supporters being Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, who first fell in love with Cole after booking her food truck while filming on set.
“We were in a pandemic where we were watching George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery and Breonna Taylor on a loop. 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 [Cole’s] company, other than absolutely awesome food, is that she cares about her people,” said Davis.
Cole’s commitment to community is ultimately what led her to meeting the love of her life, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks CEO Derrick Hayes. Hayes is a West Philadelphia native who also made a name for himself as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and cultural influencer in Atlanta. It was just five years ago when fellow Philly native Eve stopped by Hayes’ first restaurant, a 700-square-foot space located in a gas station where folks could buy his amazing cheesesteaks. Impressed by the authenticity of the Philadelphia cheesesteak, Eve took to social media to share her meal and praise Hayes and the rest is history. Since then, Hayes has welcomed Atlantans from everywhere along with a plethora of celebrities including the Migos, Meek Mill and Lena Waithe.
From enduring a rough childhood to run-ins with the law, to his humble beginnings out of a gas station, Hayes looks at his two locations now as evidence of how far he’s come. His business, named in honor of his late father “Big Dave,” who he lost to lung cancer, is a testament of what hard work can get you. For Hayes, he and Cole were bound not only by food but by love for their community, and a desire to help people however they can. It was their desire to give back that eventually led them to each other.
“We were able to use this one thing over everything, and that’s love - not just for ourselves, but for the community…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,’” explained Hayes.
Now the two have built a life insurance company, providing Black men in Atlanta who make $30,000 or less with life insurance for free. They also partnered to give back in honor of Rayshard Brooks, a young man fatally killed by Atlanta police, providing $600,000 worth of scholarships for youth and providing his family with a brand new car and life insurance.The couple have also begun buying investment property, purchasing one before they bought the home they now share with their new daughter, D Ella Hayes.
Cole admits that at first she was nervous about sharing her personal life with the world, specifically because she’s in the plant-based business and he’s not.
“To be honest, there was a business concern that I am in the vegan community and he’s not. 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] whoever’s got something to say about that can kick rocks…I think that our relationship is symbolic of what the world should look and feel like. 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,” said Cole.
Together, the two have big plans for their growing empire. Cole is releasing her first cookbook this summer, filled with “plant-based recipes for the meat eater.” She is set to release a documentary called Sluttify about the rise of Slutty Vegan during the pandemic and is scheduled to host a show with Jacque Reid about those who are Black and missing in America under her new Slutty Productions banner.
Photo Courtesy of Drea Nicole/Essence
This year alone, Cole has already signed a new shoe and handbag deal with a major shoe company and says she will open a new Slutty Vegan restaurant every month in a different city. Hayes is also hard at work, planning for 10 additional locations and eight food trucks over the next two years. His most recent location will be open soon, not far from one of Cole’s current locations. The duo also just opened Dinkies this past Thanksgiving, a vegan Philly cheesesteak concept named after the two inside Pinky’s Bar Vegan. Hayes is set to launch an egg roll and seasoning line while Cole will be releasing her chicken dip, spinach dip and vegan bacon. The two plan to continue their partnerships with major brands like Pepsi and Puma.
“I think people look at them and see themselves. 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,” said Lena Waithe.
Congratulations, Pinky and Derrick! Cheers to Black love and entrepreneurship!
Photo Courtesy of Drea Nicole/ESSENCE