No one is less surprised by the success of the growing plant-based food chain and soon-to-be main attraction for the new Baltimore Peninsula neighborhood than its founder: Baltimore native Pinky Cole.
Slutty Vegan, her restaurant, as well as its companion Bar Vegan, is scheduled to open in the Rye Street Market, a boutique office space within the Baltimore Peninsula neighborhood (formerly known as Port Covington). It joins the company’s other eateries in Georgia, Texas, Alabama and New York.
She sat down with The Baltimore Banner on Thursday, clutching the baby bump protruding from her satin leopard dress, to discuss the announcement before a news conference featuring a performance from Morgan State University’s marching band and remarks from Mayor Brandon Scott. Behind her lay at least a dozen untouched copies of her “I Hope You Fail” memoir. Its early October release had prompted a Wednesday visit to “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which, Cole noted, was not her first time as a guest there.
Slutty Vegan’s success left many at the event inspired, including one resident who walked up to Cole crying Thursday to express his gratitude, she said. Some have called her a “young Oprah,” according to Cole — a comparison she’s never shied away from.
“I knew as a kid that I was going to be great in the world,” said Cole, 35. “I was always a winner. I always had a winning mentality and that didn’t die.”
Cole’s business, now valued around $100 million, was built on her flair for the theatrical. Growing up on Cedonia Avenue in East Baltimore, she learned about stocks and business practices from her father, who had been incarcerated during her childhood.
The only person able to compete with Cole for the spotlight was her mother, the lead singer of a local reggae band called Strikers Posse. Ichelle Cole, a native of Jamaica, spent nights center stage in locs that touched the floor, singing and playing “nearly every instrument,” according to her daughter.
When the Posse went to Ocean City, so did Cole. She often joined her mother in the spotlight.
“I would see these crowds of people and I saw how many people loved my mother and I’m like, ‘I want people to love me like that, too,’” Cole said.
She took on her mother’s Rastafarian diet of fresh produce and some fish. But by 2007, Cole cut out meat entirely. She cooked vegan food for her friends, though Cole is the first to admit she was never a chef. In her early 20s, she used the money she made working as a television producer on the Maury Povich show to start a bubblegum pink-painted, Jamaican-inspired storefront in Harlem, New York.
About a year after opening in 2015, the restaurant burned down in a grease fire.
“People never talk about failure,” Cole said. “It’s inevitable. Like, life happens. … And I want people to know you don’t have to wallow in negativity.”
Success came for Cole in 2020, when she capitalized on her love of a plant-based diet and created the first iteration of Slutty Vegan, which she called a “merge between the two most pleasurable experiences in life: sex and food.”
Interested converts could choose plant-based burgers slathered in the usual condiments and vegan cheese, otherwise known as a “Sloppy Toppy,” or sandwiches like the “Hollywood Hooker,” a seductive twist on a classic Philly cheesesteak.
“I knew I had to get people dialed in, so that they can spark a dialogue and start to ask questions. And if I can get people to ask questions, that means that I can educate them on whatever it is I want to teach them,” she said.
And that was vegan food. She got pushback in the beginning, she said, but saw her business spurring conversation about the way customers eat and respond to marketing.
Whispers of Cole’s return to Charm City have hung over the Baltimore food world since the company’s infancy. In December 2022, Cole said she’s “gotta come back home” in an interview recorded with the radio station 92Q. In March of the following year, she tested the Chesapeake Bay waters with a pop-up store at Hampden’s Whitehall Mill. Lines of hungry people wrapped around the building.
“Who knows, if we run out of burgers we may just have to open a location here,” she previously said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Cole said she remains optimistic about the growth of her Slutty Vegan chain despite a volatile year in the restaurant and vegan food industry.
She told The Baltimore Banner her business recently won a bid to open a location in the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the country by passenger traffic. Slutty Vegan is also looking into licensing the brand overseas.
“My husband … he’ll be the guinea pig,” she said of Derrick Hayes, founder and CEO of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks.
”But right now, the main focus is the Baltimore Peninsula,” Cole said. She indicated that plans to move into Northwood Commons, which previously listed Slutty Vegan as one of their new tenants over Instagram, were not currently in the works.
”I like new things. I like new fresh things,” she said. “There’s a big opportunity to be able to drive a new audience to this area.”
Cole said another draw was learning that more than half the employees hired to work on the Baltimore Peninsula’s $5.5 million development effort would be Baltimore residents.
MaryAnne Gilmartin, founder of MAG Partners, a New York firm leading the project, said Cole’s arrival as the anchor tenant in Rye Street Market will help drive traffic to the neighborhood.
According to Gilmartin, developers are expecting more residents and local businesses to move in after Cole, including a potential grocer; there is no grocery store within the community’s largely industrial 235 square acres.
Multiple commercial tenants, including Nick’s Fish House, City Garage and the planned reopening of the Rye Street Tavern, which was announced as a new branch of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group in May, have already made a home there.
“This is about real people, making real impact and delivering real change and lifting up entire communities,” Gilmartin said. “[Pinky Cole] is the embodiment of what this project represents.”
This story has been updated to clarify the ongoing developments in Baltimore Peninsula.