Aisha Kamaria Cole, who goes by the name Pinky Cole, has been called a visionary and a provocateur. She also has a knack for helping meat eaters step outside their comfort zones at her plant-based burger chain, Slutty Vegan. Stepping outside her own comfort zone became a priority when she met Derrick Jermaine Hayes, the founder of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks in June 2020.
“Before I met him, I never would have talked to anybody that has a cheesesteak restaurant,” she said. Not in a romantic way, anyway, because of her vegan principles. But “his personality was so infectious that, for the first time in my life, I felt like, OK I’ll let this pass.”
In the summer of 2020, Atlanta, like other major cities, was rocked by social unrest. Protests erupted after the murder of George Floyd, and though Mr. Hayes had established himself as a supporter of other Black-owned businesses in the city, the windows of Big Dave’s downtown location, his second store, were bashed in.
“I went on social media to talk about it not because I was angry,” Mr. Hayes said. “I was hurt.” Ms. Cole, who heard about the incident, messaged him to ask if she could help. He declined her offer. “But it would be cool to meet,” he wrote back. As owners of two popular Atlanta restaurants, “I had heard things about her, and she had heard things about me.”
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By then, if the name Pinky Cole wasn’t familiar to most of Atlanta, the name Slutty Vegan almost certainly was. Ms. Cole started her business in 2018. After a short run as a food truck, the business became a restaurant just outside Atlanta in 2019, offering burgers with names like “One Night Stand” and “Fussy Hussy.”
The chain now has 11 locations across Georgia, New York City, Birmingham, Ala., and Dallas, with new stores set to open almost monthly. In 2018, the idea for a restaurant that would attract the meat-eating masses by being playful and provocative rather than sanctimonious in its approach to vegan food came to her while she was working as a TV producer.
Friends loved the name. Her mother, Ichelle Cole, however, didn’t think a new restaurant was a great idea. “She said, ‘Do you really want to do this all over again?’,” Ms. Cole said.
Before Slutty Vegan, Ms. Cole ran Pinky’s Jamaican and American, in Harlem, where she had moved in 2014 to work as a producer on Maury Povich’s TV show. In the summer of 2016, the restaurant was destroyed by a grease fire. Ms. Cole didn’t have fire insurance and had invested most of her savings in the place.
“Everything changed really fast,” she said. She was evicted from her New York apartment and her car was repossessed. “Long story short, I walked away from all of that and got back into TV production first in L.A., and then in Atlanta.”
Ms. Cole, 35, was born in Baltimore and raised there by her mother, a native of Jamaica who followed a traditional Rastafarian vegetarian diet. Her father, Stanley Cole, also from Jamaica, was sentenced to 30 years in prison the day she was born for distributing cocaine; he served 22 years and was then deported back to Jamaica.
On her mother’s side, Ms. Cole has three siblings, and on her father’s, eight. Ichelle Cole, who still lives in Baltimore part-time, is the lead singer in a reggae band, Strykers Posse, and a longtime wealth adviser at PNC Bank. Mr. Cole “is a brilliant man,” she said. “I learned about hustle and grit from him.”
Ms. Cole graduated from Clark Atlanta University in 2009 with a degree in mass media. In 2010 she moved to Los Angeles, where a Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister led her toward her first TV job as a producer on the reality show “Judge Karen’s Court.” “I was really good at it, and I kept getting promoted,” she said.
Investors have since figured out that she is really good at marketing, too. In 2021, the Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group and Richelieu Dennis’s New Voices Fund invested millions of dollars in Slutty Vegan. Last year, it was valued at $100 million, according to Fortune. Ms. Cole estimates that three-quarters of her customers are meat eaters.
Mr. Hayes, 36, grew up in West Philadelphia, the youngest of Dinah and David Hayes’s three children. As a teenager, he had legal troubles. Instead of getting sent to jail on drug charges, though, he was given a second chance.
In 2014, five years after his father died of lung cancer, he moved to Atlanta and scraped together enough money to open a 700-foot restaurant in a Shell gas station in Dunwoody, Ga. The man who leased the station, a stranger, “was the only guy that would rent me a space,” he said.
The business that mushroomed into Big Dave’s was named for his father. “My father literally died in front of my face,” he said. “He had raised me to stand on my own 10 toes, and I promised him I was going to change my life, that I wasn’t going to get back into the streets.”
Big Dave’s now has seven locations in Georgia, with plans to open in North Carolina this year.
On June 8, 2020, just after Big Dave’s windows were smashed, Ms. Cole and Mr. Hayes met at Café Sunflower, a vegan restaurant in Atlanta. Over lunch, “I realized that this was my person,” he said. “Everything I dreamed about, she dreamed about. Everything from the way she talked to the way she looked drew me to her.”
Ms. Cole thought he was charming. “I was like, OK, he’s handsome and we’ve got a lot in common,” she said.
By the end of lunch, a spell had been cast. Within weeks, both had broken off relationships that they said had been sputtering. Three months later, he had moved into Ms. Cole’s Atlanta apartment and she was pregnant with their first child, D’Ella, who is almost 2. Derrick Jr., who is almost 1, was born the following year.
The juggling of their professional ambitions with parenthood feels almost manageable, the couple said, if only because Ichelle Cole, who now works remotely for PNC, provides full-time child care, with assistance on weekends from Mr. Hayes’s mother. In addition to their two children, Mr. Hayes has two daughters from a previous relationship, Dallas, 9, and Denver, 7, who often stay with them.
On June 2, 2022, Mr. Hayes proposed at the Essence Festival in New Orleans. Ms. Cole, who was nine months pregnant with Derrick Jr., thought she was there to speak on a panel. As she maneuvered her way onstage to give her opening remarks, he approached from the crowd and dropped to one knee. Less than a minute later, she was in tears and had a diamond ring on her finger. The audience erupted in applause.
“I was totally surprised,” she said. “I had no idea, and I’m nosy. I usually know everything.”
On June 10, Ms. Cole and Mr. Hayes were married in Atlanta, the city they live just outside, at the St. Regis Hotel. Montell Jordan, the singer-songwriter and a lead pastor of Master Peace Church in Dacula, Ga., officiated a ceremony before 300 guests. He opened the ceremony with a musical reference — “Sade would say this is no ordinary love” — and riffed on the song that made him a star, punctuating his remarks about love and commitment with the words “this is how we do it.” (A song he also performed later at the reception.)
Mr. Hayes’s vows were off the cuff. “I wanted to give my raw emotions, to say exactly what I was feeling at that moment,” he said. Before their guests, he told Ms. Cole he loves her more than he loves breathing. “We will raise our family and build empires and be billionaires,” he said.
In handwritten vows, a teary Ms. Cole promised Mr. Hayes she would care for his daughters as if they were her own. “I want you to know I love you beyond myself,” she said. The couple saved a big reveal for that moment as well: The news that the child she and Mr. Hayes are expecting in December, their third, is a boy — and then Ms. Cole surprised the groom by sharing her plans to name their baby David, after the groom’s late father.
ON THIS DAY
When June 10, 2023
Where The St. Regis Hotel, Atlanta
Something for Everyone At the reception, guests chose among vegan and non-vegan dinner options, including sun-dried tomato and goat cheese stuffed chicken and pan-roasted maitake mushrooms. Coconut vegan wedding cake was served for dessert, with offerings from both Slutty Vegan and Big Dave’s were served as late-night snacks.
Beyond the Brands Ms. Cole and Mr. Hayes also work to support the community that propelled them. Among the initiatives at the Pinky Cole Foundation is a partnership with Prudential to make life insurance accessible to low-income Black men.
Goals Ms. Cole and Mr. Hayes are planning a honeymoon in Jamaica, where they’ll spend time with Ms. Cole’s father. “Me and my father have never been on free American soil together,” Ms. Cole said. “I don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where my father is free in this country, but hopefully one day I’ll be able to experience it.”
Star Studded Celebrity guests included the comedian Lala Milan, the rappers Doug E. Fresh and Young Jeezy and his wife, the TV host Jeannie Mai Jenkins.
Vetted Mr. Jordan also served as the couple’s marriage counselor. In a pre-wedding phone interview, he said he counsels many couples, but will only marry those he feels will be together forever. “Pinky and Derrick put in the effort to build their businesses, and they brought the same effort to building their relationship,” he said. “They have the resources to have a lifelong marriage.”
Charreah Jackson contributed reporting from Atlanta.