“This business gave me a different identity,” said Derrick Hayes, investor, philanthropist, CEO and founder of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks.
Born and raised in West Philly, Hayes moved to Atlanta in 2014 after the passing of his father, and soon opened the first Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks location in a 749 sq. ft Shell gas station in Dunwoody, Georgia. The decision to start his business merged his passion for community, food and entrepreneurship while also honoring his late father – and ultimately changed his life.
“I tried to rent a space all over Atlanta, but was denied because I didn’t have the business experience,” said Hayes. “The Shell owner gave me an opportunity and I started with one fryer and one grill. I’m all about what I believe in, and I knew if I had the right product people would come.”
Hayes watched his father take his last breath right in front of him after he lost his battle to cancer. Since that unforgettable moment, he has made a promise that his father’s legacy would continue on. His top selling sandwich, The Dave’s Way, honors his father as it brings together a classic philly cheesesteak topped with onions, mushrooms, sweet peppers, banana peppers and three premium cheeses.
Growing up, Hayes learned about cooking by spending time in the kitchen with his grandfather. After helping him cater a family reunion of more than 300 people, he gleaned an understanding of preparing dishes and creating spices, thereby developing a love for the food industry. Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks has become a huge phenomenon in the restaurant industry with celebrities like Lena Waithe, Will Smith, The Migos, Chris Tucker and more fervent supporters.
Hayes remembers the day his popularity took off after a visit from Philadelphia rapper and actress, Eve.
“I’m a person that believes you have to stay ready at all times. Even though I was nervous, I knew the product would speak for itself,” said Hayes. “I made a chicken cheesesteak for Eve that day, and she posted about her visit across all her social channels. Shortly after, I went from a couple hundred orders to making $5,000 in one day.”
Ranked in the top #10 sandwiches in the world, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks recently celebrated the grand opening of its third location inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He also has two brick-and-mortar locations in Downtown Atlanta and Doraville, GA, with potential location expansions planned in 2023.
“The deal with the Mercedes-Benz Stadium made me realize who I was as a person,” said Hayes. “I went in the deal to get what I deserved, and not only did they give me two locations, I now have locations on all three levels of the stadium. Opening the doors to a Black-owned business gave me the opportunity to continue pushing my father’s legacy, allowing me to give back to my community and increase representation in the industry.”
Hayes spent much of the pandemic providing food to those in need, donating more than 1,000 meals to families, feeding local frontline workers, and employing the communities’ youth. He continues to pour community efforts that support and stand behind the Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks brand.
At one point in his life, Hayes thought playing basketball would be his calling until he visited a church with his aunt and received a message from the pastor.
“I loved playing basketball and thought that was my purpose in life,” said Hayes. “One day while visiting my aunt in North Carolina, we went to church and I walked up to the pulpit. The pastor told me I was not going to be a basketball player, but a preacher. You know, sometimes we think we have a calling, but God has another plan for us. Being a pastor is not just a person that steps on the pulpit, it’s really about spreading the message. God gave me the ability to make an impact that could not have been made if I stuck with what I thought was right for me, which was basketball at that time.”
Hayes desires to corner both markets of meat-eaters and vegans. Those seeking healthier options can visit Bar Vegan lounge co-founded by his business partner and fiancé, Aisha “Pinky” Cole.
Together, the power couple is taking the food industry by storm while strengthening their community initiatives and philanthropic efforts. They are continuing their nationwide life insurance initiative for 25,000 Black men to be insured by 2023 with their Prudential Partners, and partnering with Pepsi to donate $15,000 worth of technology for computer labs in select Atlanta schools.
“Big Dave’s Cheesesteak is more than a brand, it’s a cultural changing system,” said Hayes.
When asked about advice for other entrepreneurs, Hayes said: “Treat your life like a business. Find out your profit and losses, strengths and opportunities, and invest in a plan that will promise year over year growth. Life is not a track meet, it’s a marathon. It’s all about how you win. Making those sacrifices may hurt now, but it’s going to feel better when you can put your feet up and be comfortable later on.”
Hayes just released a new seasoning, Big Dave’s All Purpose Cheesesteak Spice, a 13.5 oz bottle of Big Dave’s signature spice blend. This all-purpose blend is great on burgers, chicken, ribs and vegetables, and is available for purchase online.
The Forbes 1000 entrepreneur takes pride in maintaining a work-life balance and wants future Black restaurant owners to see him as a source of inspiration.
“I’m not what someone would consider your average CEO based on how I look – dreads, tattoos, and all,” said Hayes. “But that hasn’t stopped me from going after what I deserve, and it shouldn’t stop the next person from achieving their dreams. Lean into a self-belief system, thinking positively about yourself and your abilities. You don’t want it, you need it. ”
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