Business has been booming ever since. Not long after the brand went viral, lines began snaking around the gas station. It wasn’t uncommon to see hundreds of customers lined up for a taste of the renowned cheesesteaks.
By 2019, Big Dave’s had outgrown its humble origins. Hayes set out to expand the business into a multi-unit operation with two full-sized restaurants. He closed the original shop and opened a landmark location in downtown Atlanta, followed by a second location in Doraville, just a few miles away from the gas station that started it all. The expansion continued with a food truck, followed by the stadium units in 2022.
Ranked as one of the “Top 10 Best Sandwiches” in the world by World Food Champions, the restaurants are open for lunch and dinner and available for counter-service dine-in and takeout. They’re designed with the founder’s roots in mind. White subway tiles with red and blue accents line the walls, complemented by decor straight from The City of Brotherly Love.
“I keep that Philly vibe with Sixers and Eagles flyers around,” Hayes says. “I play Philly music. When you walk in, you really feel like you’re in Philly.”
The success of the downtown and Doraville stores sparked attention from operators interested in franchise opportunities, but when the pandemic hit, Hayes pulled back to focus on supporting the community that helped build his business. He donated thousands of free meals to customers, provided food and face masks to healthcare workers, and raised more than $200,000 to support Black-owned businesses in Atlanta.
The protests that erupted in the summer of 2020 following the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta presented another test for Big Dave’s. The windows at the downtown location were knocked out by vandals twice that summer. Hayes says the response from the community was overwhelming.
“The whole community tried to help me,” he says. “I even had celebrities wanting to donate money. I saw just how much people loved the brand, how much they wanted it to be there, and how they’d do anything to keep it there.”
Big Dave’s wasn’t immune from pandemic-driven disruption, but unlike many emerging restaurant brands, it came out of COVID stronger than ever. Hayes says the brand grew 100 percent year-over-year in 2020, and it’s continued to do so in the proceeding years.
The business recently doubled its brick-and-mortar footprint with two new restaurants in the Atlanta area, including a 1,500-square-foot store in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and a fourth store in Forest Park, Georgia. It also is gearing up to expand beyond its home state. Hayes is targeting Charlotte, North Carolina, for the brand’s first location outside of Georgia. He says he’ll start thinking about franchising when he’s closer to a double-digit store footprint. His tentative plan is to launch his tenth store through a partnership with a franchisee.
“This brand is special, and it’s going to continue to grow, but I’m not in a rush,” he says. “My dream is to have Big Dave’s all over the nation. Whether that’s by franchising or with corporate-owned stores, it doesn’t matter. The way I get there is by keeping my boots on the ground.”
Reflecting on the brand’s success so far, and its potential for continued growth, Hayes says it all boils down to that promise he made to the original Big Dave.
“I just want to make my father proud by doing something the right way,” he says. “It’s bigger than food. I have amazing food, but I also have amazing passion. Over the years, people have been able to see that. They’ve gravitated toward the brand because they want me to win.”