Atlanta Orders In: Big Dave’s founder motivated by charity and cheesesteaks

The Dave’s Way cheesesteak from Big Dave’s is with loaded beef, mushrooms, onions, sweet peppers, banana peppers, and three cheeses: American, provolone, and cheese whiz. / Courtesy of Big Dave's Cheesesteaks
The Dave’s Way cheesesteak from Big Dave’s is with loaded beef, mushrooms, onions, sweet peppers, banana peppers, and three cheeses: American, provolone, and cheese whiz. / Courtesy of Big Dave's Cheesesteaks

Credit: BIg Dave's Cheesesteaks

Credit: BIg Dave's Cheesesteaks

As a kid, Derrick Hayes struggled; now he’s determined to give back

Derrick Hayes grew up in Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love and the Liberty Bell, and graduated from the same high school as Will Smith and Wilt Chamberlain. Still, he had some rough patches along the way. Today, he believes those challenges helped shape him into a successful entrepreneur and humanitarian.

“I used to sell bean pies and newspapers with this Muslim brother underneath the bridge by my house,” said Hayes, founder and CEO of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, a company as devoted to serving the community as it is to making good sandwiches. “That’s the reason why, now, I do a lot of giving back. I see a lot of those kids out there trying to make a way, and I know how hard it is.”

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Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks offers loaded fries with cheesesteak fillings. This order of Philly fries is topped with chopped fried chicken and cheese. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks offers loaded fries with cheesesteak fillings. This order of Philly fries is topped with chopped fried chicken and cheese. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Before he figured out what he wanted to do with his life, Hayes, 33, got into trouble with the law and suffered personal loss and tragedy. ”I had a narcotics case,” he said. “I beat it.”

Later, when his father came down with lung cancer, he promised him he’d start a business and not work “like a slave and still have nothing to show for it.” (Big Dave’s — with two Atlanta locations and a food truck — is a tribute to his father, David Hayes.)

The pandemic, and the social protests over the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, provided yet another test for the restaurateur. In May, and again in August, the windows of his Forsyth Street store were knocked out by vandals. Rather than being consumed by anger, Hayes saw the experience as an opportunity to help others.

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Philadelphia native Derrick Hayes, 33, is the owner of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, named for his late father, David Hayes. Courtesy of Drea Nicole Photography
Philadelphia native Derrick Hayes, 33, is the owner of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, named for his late father, David Hayes. Courtesy of Drea Nicole Photography

Credit: Drea Nicole Photography

Credit: Drea Nicole Photography

After GoFundMe efforts raised more than $26,000 to cover property damage, he contributed the money to struggling Black-owned businesses. He also teamed up with Slutty Vegan’s Pinky Cole to give Brooks’ widow and four children a new car and life insurance policies, and the two partnered with Clark Atlanta University to provide an all-inclusive college education package, valued at $600,000, for the youngsters. Before the Black Lives Matter protests, Hayes donated sandwiches and face masks to Atlanta medical professionals.

“I love the philanthropy side, and helping people, just as much as I do creating spices and making menus,” he said, “because there’s nothing like helping somebody when they feel like life is over, and you come in like Superman and say, ‘No, it’s not. Here goes your second chance right here. I got you.‘”

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Big Dave’s has locations in Doraville (seen here) and downtown Atlanta. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Big Dave’s has locations in Doraville (seen here) and downtown Atlanta. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

Hayes said Big Dave’s sales are up 100 percent over last year, thanks to savvy social-media marketing, celebrity endorsements and hustle.

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in 2014, Hayes had trouble finding a landlord willing to rent him a space for his first business. He ended up in a Dunwoody gas station, selling Italian ice, or “water ice,” as it’s called in Philadelphia. “I didn’t have a single customer, because nobody knew what the hell it was,” Hayes recalled. Around that time, his beloved paternal grandfather was dying of emphysema.

But, the patriarch saw in Hayes something that he couldn’t see at the time: The young man could cook.

Along with its namesake sandwich, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks serves flavored Italian ices and fried egg rolls stuffed with cheesesteak ingredients (beef, salmon or chicken). Courtesy of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks
Along with its namesake sandwich, Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks serves flavored Italian ices and fried egg rolls stuffed with cheesesteak ingredients (beef, salmon or chicken). Courtesy of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Noticing Atlanta lacked authentic cheesesteaks, he added sandwiches to his filling station menu. Still, business was slow — until the rapper Eve, also a Philadelphia native, came in and raved about the food on social media. “She gave me the opportunity of a lifetime,” Hayes said. “I haven’t looked back since.” (The downtown store opened in 2019, followed by Doraville in November.)

Hayes said the secret to his cheesesteaks, named one of the 10 best sandwiches at the 2018 World Food Championships, is the steak. He marinates 100 percent grass-fed beef overnight with chopped onions, peppers and seasoning. “So, the love is in it, and that’s the difference between my cheesesteak and everybody else’s.”

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks also has a food truck, shown here outside the Doraville store. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks also has a food truck, shown here outside the Doraville store. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

BIG DAVE’S CHEESESTEAKS

Menu: cheesesteaks, wings, fries, fried egg rolls

Alcohol: no

What I ordered: beef cheesesteak, Dave’s way; chicken egg roll; fried chicken Philly fries; small pineapple water ice. The kitchen made a fried chicken cheesesteak rather than the fries; when I pointed out the error, they corrected their mistake and ended up throwing in the extra cheesesteak

Service options: takeout only; no dine-in or delivery

Outdoor dining: no

Mask policy: yes, for staff and customers. “You cannot get Big Dave’s cheesesteaks without a mask,” owner Derrick Hayes said.

Address, phone: 57 Forsyth St. NW, Atlanta (Healey Building), 404-343-0259; 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville (H Mart shopping center), 470-299-2154

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, both locations

Website: bigdavescheesesteaks.com

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