Slutty Vegan founder Aisha “Pinky” Cole is facing a lawsuit filed by a former employee of her Ponce City Market restaurant Bar Vegan alleging unpaid wages. But Cole is fighting back, denying allegations made against her and two Bar Vegan partners via a formal response to the lawsuit filed with the court and in a lengthy Instagram post. Cole says she’s not involved in day-to-day operations at Bar Vegan and isn’t “familiar with this ordeal” or the former employee.
Morgan Georgia, who worked at Bar Vegan as a bartender from March 2020 until October 2022, named Cole and her Bar Vegan partners Aaron Mattison and Jason Crain in the collective-action lawsuit claiming the trio withheld a portion of her tips for themselves and the restaurant while also paying her less than the $7.25. per hour federal minimum wage. Georgia claims in the lawsuit that tipped employees like herself were paid $2.13 an hour and were also required to give up 25 percent of their tips to Bar Vegan and its managers and owners during each shift.
The Fair Labor and Standards Act (FLSA) allows businesses to pay tipped employees below the set federal minimum wage if employees keep 100 percent of tips earned to help make up the difference. Minimum wage for tipped employees varies by state, but in Georgia, restaurants are permitted to pay tipped employees an hourly rate of $2.13 as long as the business follows the guidelines around what’s referred to as “tip credits”, a legal way to count employee tips toward the hourly minimum wage. The lawsuit against Cole and her Bar Vegan partners alleges they violated the FLSA by keeping a large percentage of tips for themselves which did not satisfy their obligation to meet the hourly minimum wage requirement.
“We believe there were significant tip credit violations here with the restaurant retaining tips,” Georgia’s attorney M. Travis Foust told the Atlanta Business Chronicle earlier this week. Foust is also representing two other Bar Vegan employees in the lawsuit.
Cole, Mattison, and Crain filed a formal response to the lawsuit with the U.S. District Court’s Northern Georgia District in Atlanta denying all of the allegations, claiming tipped employees at the restaurant were “paid compensation beyond that to which they were entitled while employed by Bar Vegan, such additional compensation would satisfy, in whole or in part, any alleged claim for unpaid minimum wages and/or overtime or other monetary relief.”
Against the advice of her lawyers, Cole took to Instagram on Thursday to defend herself against the allegations after her appearance on the “Today Show” this week was abruptly canceled due to the lawsuit.
“Up until this point, I was not familiar with this ordeal or the employee, because I don’t run day to day operations at Bar Vegan,” Cole writes. “What do I gain withholding someone’s hard earned money when my blessings overflow everyday? When I’m helping people everyday! When I’m using my resources to put people on everyday, employees included! My life’s work is in service, and this negativity don’t match my name . . . now my reputation is being compromised.”
With the breakout success of her vegan burger brand, which now includes eight restaurants and a cookbook, Cole has also become known for her philanthropic endeavors, many of which revolve around assisting Black and brown entrepreneurs with their businesses through her eponymous foundation. In 2022, Cole presented graduates of her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, with LLCs to help provide them a path toward entrepreneurship and business ownership.
Lawyers for Cole, Mattison, and Crain are currently seeking to have the case dismissed claiming Georgia and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit “cannot establish factual and/or legal basis for individual liability against” the Bar Vegan owners.