This sounds like a flashback from a Monday night in the early 1990s:
“West Philadelphia, born and raised,” said Derrick “D” Hayes, launching into his backstory, which includes how his teen years from 52nd and Parkside got flipped-turned upside down after some trouble in the neighborhood. His parents, David and Dinah, packed his suitcase and sent him on his way in 2002 — not to Bel-Air, Calif., but to his grandparents’ house in Athens, Ga.
And now he’s on the throne as the fresh prince? Almost.
“I’m the second guy from West Philly who’s gotten on the cover of Essence,” Hayes said of the magazine, whose target audience is women. His predecessor: entertainer Will Smith. And to raise a further coincidence, his partner, Aisha“Pinky” Cole, grew up in Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood — where Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, is from.
In fact, Hayes’ story was not quite as neatly packaged as Will Smith’s was in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Hayes spent a little over two years in Athens before he moved back to Philadelphia because his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. He finished his senior year at Overbrook High School and later shuttled between Georgia and Philadelphia, while watching his father decline. “His dying wish was [for me] to get my life straight,” Hayes said.
After working for the United States Postal Service and Bryn Mawr Hospital, Hayes moved to Atlanta, where he opened a water ice shop and named it Big Dave’s. “But nobody knew what water ice is there,” he said. His mom suggested cheesesteaks — something he liked cooking with his grandfather when he was a kid.
» READ MORE: Derrick Hayes: Atlanta's cheesesteak star
The “kitchen reboot,” as he called it, was a hit in 2016. Eve, the rapper/actress and fellow Philadelphia native, touted his chicken cheesesteaks and helped spread the word. Hayes built the business, buying grass-fed beef from a local farmer and importing rolls from Amoroso’s in Philadelphia.
In 2019, “Pinky” Cole, so nicknamed because her godmother remarked that she came out pink, opened a brick-and-mortar version of her vegan eatery, Slutty Vegan.
Slutty Vegan’s early customers included actress Viola Davis. So was Chaka Zulu, the manager for the rapper Ludacris, who became her manager.
Hayes began hearing talk about the long lines at Slutty Vegan. “Well, I had long lines,” he said. “My buddy said she had longer lines than me.” Though a vegan restaurant and a cheesesteak stand tend not to have great overlap, this piqued his interest.
Hayes and Cole met in spring 2020, during the unrest following George Floyd’s murder. News spread that one of Big Dave’s windows was broken, Hayes said, and Cole reached out to offer help. “I told her I didn’t help, but our community did,” he said.
They began tag-teaming on their local philanthropic projects — her Pinky Cole Foundation has provided scholarships to juvenile offenders in Atlanta and students at her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University — and fell in love.
They have a daughter together; he has two daughters from previous relationships. They recently opened Dinkie’s — a portmanteau of their names — a shop selling vegan versions of Big Dave’s cheesesteaks and egg rolls. It’s next to Bar Vegan, Cole’s restaurant and cocktail bar.
Her first cookbook, Eat Plants B*tch, will be published this summer by Simon & Schuster.
“It’s surreal,” Hayes said of the Essence coverage. “It’s a blessing and a dream come true after all the hard works we’ve done.”