Pinky Cole Hayes Makes Meatless Burgers Fun

A black woman wearing her hair in braids smiles for a portrait. She's wearing a grey, cropped hoodie that says
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Will Sterling Photography.

When a fire destroyed Pinky Cole Hayes’s first restaurant, it wasn’t crazy to think that her career in the culinary business might be toast, too. But Cole Hayes has a preternatural drive to succeed: While she was in high school in Baltimore, she would upcharge her peers for McDonald’s — selling them Big Macs for two dollars and pocketing the extra dollar — and she ran an events business that hosted parties for local teenagers. She credits this attitude towards hard work to her Jamaican immigrant parents. Her father, who owned nightclubs, was handed a prison sentence for cocaine distribution on the day she was born; her mother held multiple jobs to keep the family afloat.

Food was a part of Cole Hayes’s world from the time she was young. Her mother raised her on the Rastafarian ital diet, which is vegetarian, and prioritized homemade, organic foods. During college, Cole Hayes flirted with veganism. She opened her first restaurant, Pinky’s Jamaican and American, in Harlem when she was 26 years old. It thrived until Cole Hayes’s hard work went up in smoke in 2016, and without proper insurance, she lost everything in the fire. Evicted, in debt, and understandably disenchanted, she landed a TV writing job in Atlanta. Then late one evening, while craving fast food, she thought: Why was there no good place to get vegan, late-night eats? Slutty Vegan was born in 2018, and unlike Cole Hayes’ first restaurant, it would be a full commitment to veganism. Burgers and fries were given cheeky names like Ménage à Trois and Side Heux. Vegans and non-vegans alike fell in love with both the food and the delightfully hedonistic vibe. Today, Slutty Vegan has eleven locations, with two more to come this year.

Cole Hayes now spends her time overseeing the chain, writing books, and motivating her social media followers. She also prioritizes working with her foundation, which helps young people of color become entrepreneurs. When we spoke, she had just given birth to her third child. “I’m taking two weeks off after having my son,” she said. “It feels good to relax, not think about work, and bond.” She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Derek Hayes; their newborn, two-year-old, and one-year-old; and Hayes’s nine-year-old and seven-year-old. Here’s how she gets it done.

On her morning routine: 
I wake up at 3:30 in the morning. I drink a little less than a liter of water and check my email, my bank accounts, and then social media to make sure my business didn’t fall apart. I probably go back to sleep for about 45 minutes, and then wake up at 4:30 and take a shower. I pack my kids’ lunch, and they get up at seven o’clock. I get them ready for school, and they’re out the door at 7:55. I clean up my room, clean up the bathroom, and then I start making work phone calls.

On managing stress:  
This fourth quarter has probably been the most difficult quarter that I’ve had professionally. The economy has just been so unstable — every business has felt it, whether you have a million locations or just one. I’ve been able to sustain through these difficult times, but not without challenges. This was the first time I’ve been pregnant and in business when the economy is up and down. I’ve been trying to find ways to relax. I took a walk yesterday, because I’m dealing with postpartum. It felt good to get some fresh air and to get out of the house.

On being vulnerable: 
A lot of entrepreneurs don’t talk about struggling. Everybody has it together, like, Oh, it’s all good. But nobody talks about the times where it gets a little uncomfortable. I’m in a very vulnerable state right now with my third child. I have three children under three years old, and a business that is still growing, that still needs me. I’m newly married. I’m a lot of things to a lot of people. So I’m learning how to channel that stress-free mindset at this moment.

On how her role at Slutty Vegan has changed:
I currently serve as the face of the business, almost like I’m Ronald McDonald. I have a core team that runs the day-to-day of the company, but I have the final decision. I used to be in the restaurants every day, making the food — shakes, fries, cooking burgers — and I no longer do that because of where I’m at in my life. When people see me, they want my autograph. Restaurateurs don’t usually turn into celebrities, right? I joke to my friends, I’m a C+ celebrity, I’m climbing up the ladder. So I had to step outside of that part of the business. It got distracting to go into stores. I couldn’t get any work done there. Now I lead the business from the outside. I do a lot of thought leadership and high-level decision making — investments, the strategy of the business, what we’re going to do next, and working with my team. They’ve got it down pat, which I’m happy about.

On talking to her customers like they’re friends: 
We use the platform Community, we use MailChimp, we have all these different avenues to stay connected to the customers. We want it to always be organic and authentic, and we talk to them like no other business does, saying hey, boy! It lets people know we are real. We don’t just want to collect a check, we want people to know this is a community-based business. So we talk to customers like we talk to friends.

On not yet feeling like she’s “made it:”
I always feel like the underdog, even when I know that I’m at the top of my game. That’s a blessing and a curse. It makes me want to work harder. In the moments that I do feel like I’m getting comfortable, I like to check myself and jump back in. To be honest, I still don’t feel like I’ve made it. I’m scratching the surface, getting closer, but I’m not quite there yet. I’m okay with that, because it’s part of the journey.

On her evening routine: 
I’m working throughout the day until probably five o’clock, and then I spend time with my kids. We watch Bubble Guppies and CoComelon. They play with their toys and I play with them. I do some research about the business on TikTok. My husband and I make dinner — my daughter is vegan, my son is not. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s because my husband is not vegan. Then we get the kids ready for bed. We lie down and watch Netflix for about five minutes, because we fall asleep as soon as we turn it on.

On the people who help her get it done:
Returning to work after having my other two children was actually easy. I have a lot of help from my mother and my mother-in-law, and I’m grateful for that village because I know everybody doesn’t have that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Restaurateur Making Meatless Burgers Fun