36-year-old CEO took Philly cheesesteaks to Atlanta, sold over $2.3 million at one store in the last year—now he wants to help others do the same

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Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks founder and CEO Derrick Hayes is cooking up what he hopes will be his most delicious offering yet: a chance to own a franchise.

“I think entrepreneurs are going to eat it up,” 36-year old Hayes says, “pun intended” with a big smile. “I already know that we have the No. 1 cheesesteak in the country!”

On Thursday, Hayes will begin accepting official applications to purchase a Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks franchise. The West Philadelphia native is planning to take the iconic Philly sandwich national with a goal of opening 100 franchise locations by the end of 2025.

“I’m a visionary, I’m a dreamer.” Hayes says. “Franchising is something that I thought about years ago, but I didn’t have the experience or the team to do it.”

Fulfilling a dream

Hayes is beginning the franchise process in August in honor of Black Business Month, he says, a time to celebrate the accomplishments of Black entrepreneurs and acknowledge their challenges.

When a business owner franchises, the franchisees purchase the right to do business under the franchisor’s name and may gain access to proprietary systems. In theory, it’s a mutually beneficial exchange: the owner earns money and the franchisee is able to immediately run their own business, ideally building off of an already successful brand.

Only 8% of franchise owners are Black, according to data from the International Franchise Association. However, Black franchisees have revenues 220% higher than independent Black-owned businesses on average, the data finds.

Hayes is seeking franchisees currently in the food business, but eventually hopes to inspire people who have faced legal troubles, do not have a college degree or lack experience to follow their dreams of owning a business.

“I wasn’t an entrepreneur, I wasn’t a businessman. I’m making it for the people. If they want to get involved with what we’re building, we are going to help them up,” Hayes says.

From water ice to cheesesteaks

Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks started as Big Dave’s Water Ice, as Italian ice is known is Philadelphia, in a gas station in Dunwoody, Georgia, in 2014.

The restaurant is named after Hayes’ late father, who inspired his passion for entrepreneurship.

“I watched my father die in front of me. He asked me to make him a promise,” Hayes says, recalling his father’s final words. “I don’t want you to work like I did my whole life and have nothing to show for it.”

Derrick Hayes

Source: William Sterling

After failing to gain traction selling frozen treats, Hayes switched to cheesesteaks. His business continued to struggle until rapper, actress and TV host Eve, also a Philadelphia native, stopped by for a cheesesteak.

“I’m cooking this chicken cheesesteak like my life depended on it. I said, ‘There’s no way that I’m going to have this opportunity right now and drop the ball,’ because I don’t have another opportunity. I don’t have another resource.”

Hayes says after taking one bite of the cheesesteak, Eve changed his business and life. “Eve went on every social media outlet she had and said that the real deal cheesesteak is in the South, he’s from Philly and y’all make sure you support this brother. The next day I had a line out the door.”

In August 2019, Hayes opened his flagship location in downtown Atlanta. In March 2020, the pandemic would force him to temporarily close. During that period, the store was damaged in the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd.

It was during those turbulent times another restaurant owner reached out to offer help: Pinky Cole, founder of Slutty Vegan, a plant-based-food franchise. The two connected to discuss repairs to Big Dave’s and community outreach during the pandemic. A romance blossomed, and Hayes and Cole married in June. They now have two daughters, with a son on the way.

Building the brand

Hayes has seen his family and business grow rapidly in recent years.

In the first year of operation at the gas station location, Hayes says he made less than $100,000 in sales. But over the past 12 months at his flagship location in downtown Atlanta alone, the business generated over $2.3 million in revenue.

Big Dave’s is also expanding. Hayes opened two additional locations in Georgia in 2020 and three inside Mercedes Benz Stadium, where the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons play, in 2022. Earlier this year, he opened another location in suburban Atlanta, with the first location in Charlotte, North Carolina, scheduled to open this fall.

The chain’s signature sandwich is called the “Dave’s Way” cheesesteak in honor of his father. It’s a beef, chicken or salmon cheesesteak with fried onions, fried mushrooms, American cheese, provolone cheese and cheese wiz.

Hayes is also expanding the brand by selling Big Dave’s All Purpose Spice on his website.

“I’ve made my father famous!” Hayes says. “That was my goal. To always feel his presence.”

Now, Hayes hopes to make Big Dave’s a presence in major cities across the country. He’s looking for franchisees who share his dream.

“I want to deal with people who care about people. The customer is never wrong, we stand on that,” Hayes says. “I want people to feel like it’s theirs. Big Dave’s is not just a restaurant; we stand for the community, for peace and for culture.”

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