Two days before Derrick Hayes, 33, lost his father to lung cancer in 2009, his dad told him he didn’t want him working for the man, getting “mistreated and being taken advantage of like he was his entire life.”
Those words stuck with Hayes who moved to Atlanta, and used his life savings to open Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, a grab-and-go eatery named after his late father.
Hayes, 33, who was raised in West Philadelphia, has grown his business selling cheesesteaks served on a soft Amoroso roll with three cheeses, his late grandfather’s seasoning recipe, mushrooms, peppers, and onions from a small space next door to a gas station into a profitable enterprise with two brick-and-mortar locations and a 26-foot food truck that only serves egg rolls.
Hayes originally planned to open a concept selling water ice. But the Philly treat didn’t immediately turn a profit. After ordering a cheesesteak in an Atlanta restaurant that left him unimpressed, he installed a griddle and a fryer that barely fit in that tiny convenience store kitchen.
Big Dave’s popularity took off after a visit from Philadelphia rapper/actress Eve. The Grammy winner was in Atlanta filming Barbershop: The Next Cut.
A mutual friend told Eve that there was an authentic Philly spot in town that she should try. Eve planned a visit and told Hayes she’d post his chicken cheesesteak to all of her social media accounts if she liked it.
After Eve’s visit, lines of customers began to wrap around Big Dave’s.
A who’s who of Atlanta’s entertainment scene began posting. Migos, Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert, Lou Williams, DJ Drama, Don Cannon, and Lena Waithe shared their visits to Big Dave’s across their social media handles.
“I knew that was my shot,” says Hayes, who graduated from Overbrook High School. He said watching the business become successful took patience. All of Hayes’ restaurants now sell water ice, which has become a popular menu item in Atlanta
Hayes recently opened a second Big Dave’s and is now using his success to empower a new generation of entrepreneurs, and those who are less fortunate.
“It’s a dream come true,” Hayes said. “It’s something I love to do, and I enjoy making people smile from it.” Hayes, who stays connected to the Philadelphia food scene through social media, said he’s most proud of building Big Dave’s to leave as a legacy for his daughters, Dallas, 6, and Denver, 5.
When the pandemic hit, Hayes fed frontline workers at 40 hospitals across metro Atlanta and hosted free food happy hours for customers. “They’re relying on their paychecks or struggling to feed their children. The least I could do is give out meals and help the best way that I can.”
Hayes also donated $26,000 to help several businesses keep their doors open. His charity, the David and Derrick Hayes Foundation, awarded its first scholarship to a Georgia State University student majoring in neuroscience.
“You gotta be there for the people because they were there for you,” Hayes continues. “You can’t just take their money, and when times get tough, you fold. It may hurt your bank account, but it’s worth it because y’all sticking together.”
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The community reciprocated when the windows at Big Dave’s downtown Atlanta location were broken twice last summer following protests. Rapper Russ donated $20,000 to Big Dave’s; SchoolboyQ followed with $10,000 for repairs.
That community building brought about more collaborations. Hayes recently partnered with Aisha “Pinky” Cole, the owner of Slutty Vegan, a popular plant-based restaurant.
The two have opened Dinkies, a vegan Philly cheesesteak concept. The two entrepreneurs and humanitarians also have partnered with Atlanta Life Insurance Co. to provide yearlong paid life insurance policies that offer mental health, yoga, and wellness to Black men ages 15-39 who earn under $30,000 a year.
“We have to stand together and for something,” Hayes said.
Hayes wants to expand Big Dave’s to HBCU campuses staffed only by students.
“Food is just my stepping stone,” he said. “I’m trying to break generational curses, so it’s bigger than food because I’m helping the community now.”