What does a small sandwich shop in a Dunwoody, Georgia, gas station have in common with rap artist/actress Eve? For West Philadelphia native, restauranteur and philanthropist Derrick “D” Hayes, these elements birthed his future cheesesteak empire, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks.
“I cooked that sandwich like my life depended on it—because this was really my last shot,” recalls Hayes about that make-or-break moment in this entrepreneurial journey.
And the sandwich? Well, it turned out good. Really, really good. Today, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the Southeast, having announced franchising plans with a goal of signing 100 locations in the next 12-24 months.
With its classic cheesesteak ranked by Food World Champions as one of the Top 10 Best Sandwiches in the world and recently opening its fourth location in Lawrenceville, Georgia, this savvy entrepreneur’s empire is expanding.
Here Hayes, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks founder and CEO, shares how a classic Philadelphia sandwich found its way into the hearts and on the tables of the southern culinary scene.
Your latest Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks location in Lawrenceville, Georgia, is very close to where you opened your first sandwich shop.
I started in Dunwoody, Georgia, which is about 25-30 minutes from my Lawrenceville location. So all that traffic I had from my first location at the gas station, most of it was coming from Lawrenceville.
I knew that market, and I knew this community was waiting for us to arrive. And I’m able to bring something back to the people that helped me in the beginning. It’s a smaller, straight-to-the-point location: The space is around 1,500 square feet.
It’s a new model for us. It’s working good because Lawrenceville is now one of my highest-grossing stores.
What do you think makes Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks special?
For one, I’m born and raised in West Philly. So you have a real Philly kid that created this company. And two, the seasoning; I created something that’s special to the brand. And then there’s the Amoroso roll from Philly. I brought that roll to the South.
But the major thing that makes Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks: my story, my grind, my struggle that I’ve been through in showing the world that you could be imperfect and show perfection.
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Tell us more about what inspired you to bring the Philadelphia Cheesesteak to Georgia.
To be honest, I wanted to start my life over. I wanted a fresh start…I got in trouble in 2008, and I caught a case of narcotics. I was able to beat the case; God gave me a second chance, and I was able to straighten my life out.
In 2009, I watched my father die from lung cancer. And I wanted to make my father proud. His dying wish was [for me] to straighten out. So in 2014, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
I was thinking about jumping into real estate full throttle. But then I went to this [popular restaurant] because I was missing cheesesteak, they call them Phillys.
I started laughing because I was born and raised in Philly and I knew that these people were being cheated out of a real cheesesteak.
Is that the moment when you decided to make cheesesteaks a business?
I wanted to open a business. I didn’t start with cheesesteaks at first. I started with “water ices.” The world calls it Italian Ice, but in Philadelphia, we call it water ice. So, my first business in 2014 was called Dave’s Philly Water Ice.
Nobody knew what water ice was, so I couldn’t get anybody to walk through the door. I was heartbroken because I stuck my last coins into this business and I wanted it to work. Then my mother told me, “You should put some hot food in there.”
My grandfather said, “Put some cheesesteaks in there.” And I was like, you know what? It’s time to go full throttle with this. I’m shutting down for a couple of months. I’m going to put a kitchen in, and I changed the name to Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks.
Where did you get the idea to name your business Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks?
I named this business after my father because he was my best friend. And what was tearing me apart was I would get up in the morning and he wasn’t there. So, I wanted my father to live on forever.
What would you consider your “big break” when it came to your business?
In 2015, I had the rapper Eve come to my [gas station] location. She was shooting the movie “Barbershop,” and she told me if the sandwich was good, she would put it on all her social media outlets.
I was broke. I didn’t have much. I had employees that I didn’t know how I was going to pay because business was slow. And then she posted and told the people that I was a real Philly kid with a real Philly cheesesteak in Georgia.
That gave me a spark, and a few months later, I was able to maintain my traffic. Then in 2018, I got asked to represent Georgia in a national sandwich competition. I rated top 10 in the world in that competition and everything started to happen for me.
I started to be known around the world for cheesesteaks. A lot of people saw me build a brand on social media because I would always go on Instagram, show my videos, show the food. I show the people how it’s really like to make it out of the mud, from nothing to making a national brand and making multi-million dollars for the brand.
I think that people adapt to it a lot because they are able to feel they are part of the brand. Even if in their own lives they’re not feeling motivated, they can look at my life and get motivated, and that’s what I’m trying to push now with my philanthropy side.
You’re very involved in giving back to the community. Can you tell us more about the David & Derrick Hayes Foundation?
The David & Derrick Hayes Foundation has already given out beds to hospitals. We’ve donated cars. When the Rayshard Brooks shooting happened in the Wendy’s parking lot, I partnered with my wife, Pinky Cole Hayes [founder of Slutty Vegan restaurants], to team up and buy his wife a car, provide life insurance for his family, scholarship money for the kids.
Me and Pinky, we also partnered with Prudential for Square 1: The Life Experience Program. If you’re a Black man and you make less than $30,000 income, you can get life insurance from Prudential.
We’re trying to sign up 25,000 Black men, and that’s an initiative we’re working on right now. But the main thing I truly love with what I do is to let the kids see me [because] if they can see, they can do it too
Why do you think it’s important for young people to see others like you being successful?
Sometimes if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.
So what do you think is the key to keeping your eyes on the prize?
Discipline is the way you win. I was always told, ‘You can be the best athlete in the world, but if you don’t have discipline, you can’t stay in business.’ My discipline is knowing that I have to stay in my own lane. I don’t need to get distracted.
I need to be around people who elevate my mind, who keep me focused. Who sharpen me. And, I really pray; I talk to God. I think that’s important because sometimes when you’re in the media a lot and getting a lot of popularity, a lot of people stroke your ego.
You’ve got to keep yourself humble. You got to keep yourself grounded. And the way you do that is you thank God—because without him none of this would be possible.