Atlanta isn’t the first city that comes to mind when you think about cheesesteaks, but it’s where Derrick Hayes built a name for himself with his take on the classic sandwich.
The West Philadelphia native launched Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks in 2014. What started with a single location in a small gas station outside of Atlanta has expanded into one of the region’s fastest-growing businesses. Its footprint now spans four stores across the city, along with a food truck and three units in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.
Hayes has become a rising star in the restaurant industry with his award-winning take on West Philly fare. In 2021 he was named to the Forbes Next 1,000 List. Last year, he graced the cover of Essence Magazine alongside his partner and fellow restaurateur Pinky Cole, founder of Atlanta-based Slutty Vegan.
Success hasn’t come easy. In fact, it almost didn’t come at all. Hayes ran into trouble with the law as a young adult. At one point he faced a potential jail sentence for drug trafficking, but a stroke of luck helped him avoid spending time behind bars and gave him an unexpected second chance.
Hayes started Big Dave’s to honor his father, David Hayes, who he watched die from cancer in 2009. Before moving to Atlanta, he promised the patriarch that he’d turn his life around and start his own business. He made good on that pledge when he set up shop in a 750-square-foot gas station in the northern suburb of Dunwoody. It was there that he started serving up flavors from his hometown in the form of beef, chicken, and salmon cheesesteaks.
“I want people to know that they’re getting something authentic, because I’m from West Philly,” Hayes says. “The marriage between that authenticity and the special way I do things is what sets us apart.”
Founder: Derrick Hayes
Year Started: 2014
Total Units: Four restaurants in Atlanta, three kiosks in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and a food truck
He points to the signature Dave’s Way sandwich as an example. It comes with onions, sweet peppers, banana peppers, and mushrooms, plus American cheese, provolone cheese, and Cheese Whiz, all served on a traditional Amoroso’s roll. That’s different from what you’ll find in Philadelphia, where the sandwiches come with just one type of cheese. Hayes also prides himself on Big Dave’s seasoning, which is now sold as a standalone product in-store and via the company’s website.
Beyond the flagship cheesesteaks, the menu includes hand-rolled egg rolls, wings, Philly fries smothered in cheesesteak fixings, and a selection of Philly-inspired salads and beverages.
Hayes says it didn’t take long for Big Dave’s to develop a loyal following. Still, those early days at the gas station weren’t a walk in the park. He was cash-strapped, learning how to run a restaurant in real-time, and dealing with faulty equipment. A passion for cooking and the motivation to honor the promise he made to his father pushed him to persevere.
His big break came in 2016 when the rapper, actress, and fellow Philadelphia native Eve visited the Dunwoody shop.
“She said that if the food was good, she’d put us up on her social media outlets,” Hayes recalls. “I made that chicken cheesesteak like my life depended on it. She went crazy for it, and the next thing I know, we were going viral.”
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.”