Chipotle Mexican Grill, Five Guys, Panera Bread, QDOBA Mexican Eats — those are some of the most familiar names and groundbreaking concepts in the fast-casual segment that continue to set the pace in the category they helped define. But in the collective shadow of such Goliaths, there’s a slew of up-and-coming concepts — some very new, some newly invigorated and primed for expansion — keeping the category fresh, dynamic and more diverse than ever.
Their menus range from classic comfort and soul foods to ethnic and fusion cuisines, plant-forward, diet-friendly and indulgent vegan. Their founders include entrepreneurial immigrants, opportunity-spotting friends and family members, and even corporate chains seeking new avenues for growth. But as different as they may be, they’re all driven to satisfy consumer appetites for high-quality, flavorful foods, customization, speed and convenience while at the same time delivering unique brand experiences.
- Founder: Pinky Cole
- HQ: Atlanta
- Menu focus: Vegan burgers and fries
- Units: 13
- Average check: $25-$28
- Ideal unit size: 2,000 square feet
Dreamed up in her apartment back in 2018, and introduced to the world — or at least to Atlanta — via Instagram as a virtual brand, Pinky Cole’s Slutty Vegan empire just keeps growing. And so does her followers’ appetite for the plant-based fast-casual. Cole now has 13 brick-and-mortar locations and a buzz-generating food bus serving up Slutty Fries and signature burgers like the One Night Stand, Menage a Trois and Fussy Hussy. Cole’s gone retail with her proprietary Slut Dust seasoning blend and dips. She has established a foundation to help empower people of color, published a vegan cookbook and in October released a book based on her own life and business.
As a fast-casual concept, Slutty Vegan is all in good fun, and it’s part of Cole’s mission to bring plant-based food knowledge and options to urban neighborhoods and food deserts. “I could have just called it Pinky’s Vegan, but you probably wouldn’t stand in line for that,” she says. “Slutty Vegan takes the two most pleasurable experiences in life and gets people excited about food in a different way, helps them to reimagine it. Our food is indulgent, but it shows that vegan can be delicious. We couple food with philanthropy and that’s been a recipe for success.”
Last May, Slutty Vegan received a $25 million investment from Danny Meyers’ Enlightened Hospitality Investments and New Voices, a fund that provides financial support to women business owners of color. The money is being used to enhance the chain’s infrastructure and fuel corporate unit growth. Franchising isn’t part of the growth plan — yet. “We’re continuing to figure this out,” Cole says. “Our brand is very delicate; it’s not just a regular restaurant experience. It’s like an amusement park when you come to our stores. We’re laughing, the music is booming, we’re calling you a slut, which at Slutty Vegan means you’re a friend. We have a lot of fun. We sing and dance. I want it to be such a shocking experience that once you leave the building you have no choice but to pick up the phone and tell three friends about it. I have to make sure that culture is treated with the utmost care, so right now I’m just focused on corporate expansion.”
The brand’s latest opening is on the campus of Atlanta’s Spelman College with another following at the Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Outside of Georgia, the chain operates in Dallas, Birmingham, Ala., and New York City.
Developed as carry-out or delivery only, stores average 1,500 to 2,000 square feet. “We’ve never had seats, but I just approved adding seats moving forward,” Cole says. “We want to take the experience to a whole new level, and we’ve identified that we can do both. We don’t have to limit ourselves. We just have to make sure that the quality stays the same. That’s what’s most important.”