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Thriving despite the lockdown

BUSINESS

Amid the pandemic lockdown and despite other setbacks, there are small businesses that are thriving.


Self-taught restauranteur, Aisha “Pinky” Cole, founder and CEO of vegan comfort food restaurant Slutty Vegan, is one. Many restaurants have lost most of their sales, but not Slutty Vegan; it has grown 15%. Cole’s growth plans are on target, too, with two new locations expected to open in early June. The company is also expanding into branded retail products: a potato chip seasoning followed by a vegan cookie.

Slutty Vegan, which is based in Atlanta, Georgia, closed the sit-down side of the business on March 17 “to reduce the unintended spread of infection.” It frequently had long queues wrapping around its food truck and restaurant, However, the takeaway side has more than made up for the loss. Even with physical distancing in place, instead of the hour-long waits for service, customers order through an updated Point-Of-Sale system for home delivery by Uber Eats or a quick restaurant pickup.


Cole says there are ways to push past the inevitable stumbling blocks “What may look like a perceived failure is really not a failure at all, it’s really an opportunity to go to the next level and be an expert in your field. I learned it from real life experience,” she explains.


She knows what she’s talking about. From a restaurant fire to employee lawsuits, Cole says her biggest mistakes have propelled her entrepreneurial evolution.


After losing her first restaurant in a devastating fire in New York, Cole shifted careers and moved to Los Angeles to work as a TV supervising producer for two and a half years before moving to Atlanta for a casting producer position. The inspiration for her second restaurant business was fuelled by her own need: there were no healthy, vegan restaurants around.


She again took the plunge opening her business and needed to find a way to market it. She chose to tell her personal story and that’s how she garnered public attention. “Everybody has a story. It’s up to you how you tell that story and how you get your audience to hear it, and how I did that is through social media,” she explained.


By perfecting her personal storytelling and creating a memorable customer experience, Cole has cultivated a community of diehard fans. “So we tell people, ‘You come for the experience, you leave with the food.’ Because it’s bigger than burgers and fries,” she said.


And Cole is giving back. Even in these difficult times. She has set up a weekly Entrepreneurs Anonymous virtual meeting to offer advice to other small business owners. She’s also set up the not-for-profit Pinky Cole Foundation, its mission to empower communities of colour to achieve their financial and entrepreneurial goals. So far, it is helping pay the rent for neighbouring small businesses that are having a more difficult time.


Black-owned businesses, we’ve always landed at the bottom of the totem pole as it relates to resources,” Cole said. “We put our blood, sweat and tears into these businesses and everything you’ve worked hard for can be lost in a matter of days.”


The foundation has also been helping residents living at National Church Residences, an aged care home, by donating vegan burgers. And it has donated free meals to health care workers at Northside Hospital’s Women’s Centre and also to other frontline workers, such as police, emergency medical workers and utility workers.

Pinky Cole’s Six Tips

  • Make your mission bigger than your product and be willing to help others.

  • Don’t be afraid to start over after a pitfall even if it’s in an entirely new direction.

  • Prioritise people: put your employees and customers first.

  • Nail down your story so your audience can understand where you’ve been and where you’re going.

  • Use social media as a tool to connect your business to targeted customers.

  • Create a memorable customer experience for long-term success.

ABOVE (top) Aisha 'Pinky' Cole (bottom) Slutty Vegan restaurant in action

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