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‘The future of restaurants belongs to the innovators’ say NRA Show keynote speakers Pinky Cole and Danny Meyer

Slutty Vegan founder Pinky Cole and one of her major investors, Union Square Hospitality Group founder Danny Meyer know what it takes for restaurants to thrive in 2023

It’s 2023 and restaurant operators are starting to get tired of comparing everything to the pandemic-era. If restaurants want to survive and thrive in 2023, they have to do two things: innovate and stand out confidently. This is the mantra that National Restaurant Association Show keynoters Danny Meyer (award-wining restaurateur and founder of Union Square Hospitality Group) and Pinky Cole (founder of Atlanta-based plant-based burger chain, Slutty Vegan) have in common.

Although they might have very different portfolios (most of Danny Meyer’s restaurants are in fine dining), both found success in creating a unique burger concept — Slutty Vegan and Shake Shack, respectively — and in 2022, Meyer’s group Enlightened Hospitality Investments invested $25 million in Cole’s Slutty Vegan concept. In 2023, they shared the stage in Chicago to discuss how to stand out from the crowd and balance tech innovation with making sure you’re not just jumping on the bandwagon.

As National Restaurant Association CEO and keynote panel moderator Michelle Korsmo said, “the future belongs to the innovators and early adopters,” suggesting that operators quickly adopt an innovative mindset and be open to change in the restaurant industry, from AI and automation to the explosion of growth in the virtual restaurant space.

This is an idea that Pinky Cole knows well, after coming into the restaurant industry with zero experience and growing her first restaurant’s revenues to $4 million within the first six months, By the time she opened Slutty Vegan in 2018 as an Instagram delivery-based vegan burger concept, her food had gone viral.

“When I came up with this concept […]I started with a ghost kitchen, I started serving people, the first day I got like four people. And then the weekend that I had 20 people, and then we get to 50, and then 100. And then there were 500 people standing outside for something I created,” Cole said. “And I'm like, ‘Okay, this is this is bigger than just burgers and fries. This is a movement.’”

With a name like Slutty Vegan (which marries two of the world’s greatest pleasures, Cole said), they were able to get people talking and stand out confidently in the increasingly crowded field of plant-based burger concepts.

“We are not selling food, we are selling experiences,” Cole said. That distinctive voice has crossed over into Slutty Vegan’s marketing messaging. When the company sends text messages to their customers, they never say things like “here’s $5 off your next order.” The marketing messaging is always in Cole’s voice and is a little bit scandalous.

“If I can get your attention, then I’m doing something right,” she added.

Standing out to customers through digital marketing and loyalty programs is crucial for restaurants that want to survive in 2023.

“I don’t think people really care that much about $5 off,” Meyer said. “But when you see a degree of returns, with people coming back a third or a fourth time…..then nothing is better than just surprising them and using their name in a surprise and delight.”

Part of being bold and standing out is about not being afraid to invest in technology innovation so that you’re ahead of the curve, and as Korsmo pointed out, you never want to be the person in the bell curve that is the latest to adapt these innovations. However, it is all about balance, as sometimes it’s smarter to wait out technology investments to make sure it makes sense for your brand.

“You don’t have to go first,” Meyer said. “I’ll never forget when Shake Shack first opened, we wanted to jump on getting a loyalty program…and we probably went through five or six revisions of what it should be….so there are times when it pays to wait and watch and see what’s working. Unless you’re the company that’s creating this technology, I don’t think there’s a huge benefit to being first.

Even if you don’t make the first move, there’s no doubt that making some sort of move to be a leader in tech innovation and brand uniqueness is crucial to survival in this new age of restaurant operations.

Contact Joanna at [email protected]


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