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Derrick Hayes, Founder And CEO Of Big Dave's Cheesesteaks Discusses Entrepreneurship, Generational Wealth, And Community Building

Derrick Hayes is charismatic, driven, humble, confident, and honestly the epitome of American exceptionalism and the embodiment of the American dream. However, the now 35-year-old’s life, he just celebrated a birthday on May 8th, could have gone on another trajectory comparable to many young Black men growing up in poverty-stricken communities who get up in a life of crime to provide themselves financial stability. Hayes found himself in court for selling drugs. Still, through the prayers of his sister and due to the lateness of the detective who intended to testify against him at his trial, the judge dismissed Hayes’ case, granting him a reprieve that he cherished. After the ordeal, Hayes promised himself to change his life.

Hayes is from West Philadelphia; born and raised, he journeyed into the culinary industry by mistake. Growing up, he learned about cooking by spending time in the kitchen with his grandfather. Under his grandfather’s tutelage, he gleaned an understanding of preparing dishes and creating spices, thereby developing a love for the food industry.

Without any formal education or training, Hayes learned his craft of cooking on his own. “On Sundays, when he would go to church, I had to finalize his Sunday dinner if I didn’t attend church with him. So over the years, it was just me, learning and mastering the spices he taught me. Later in life , it winds up panning out for me, and I didn’t have to attend school,” Hayes explains, that he grew in his understanding of how to prepare food to carry on his grandfather’s tradition.

“People used to love his food, so I was able to carry that legacy, and now people love my food.” He recently debuted his line of seasonings earlier this month called Big Dave’s All-Purpose Cheesesteaks seasoning, which customers can use on seafood, beef, chicken, or vegetables. He tested it first on all his restaurant locations before making it available for the general public, and it is now available on his website.

Hayes credits his grandfather for developing his interest in food preparation. Still, when he established Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, he named it after his father to honor him after he passed away.

“I watched my father take his last breath right in front of my face, and it was very hard for me. I made him a promise that I would change my generational curses. I was standing on my own ten toes, and I’m carrying his legacy every day,” he said.

When he moved to Atlanta and tried the city’s version of a Philly cheesesteak, it did not live up to the original, and he knew the lane that he needed to operate to “bring that real deal to Atlanta.”

“The real Philly, outside of the tri-state, [has] never been done. No one has ever respected a cheesesteak the way they respect Big Dave’s right now, so I’m making history.”

When fellow Philadelphia resident, rapper, and actress Eve was in Atlanta filming a project five years ago, she visited Hayes’ 700-square-foot Shell gas station location to partake in his cheesesteak, which reminded her of home. She posted a picture of the sandwich on social media, and the publicity proved fruitful for Hayes. Locals and celebrities alike lined up at his two locations to purchase his highly sought-after Philly sub, and the popularity of his sandwiches has not waned. He is in the five percentile of successful startups in the country, and he now oversees a multi-million dollar business with just two locations and a food truck.

Hayes is an astute businessman who desires to corner both markets of meat-eaters and vegans. For Big Dave’s, customers can have the traditional cheesesteak. Those seeking a healthier option can visit Bar Vegan lounge founded by his partner Aisha “Pinky” Cole, and enjoy vegan egg rolls and Philly cheesesteaks called Dinkies, a portmanteau of their names Derrick and Pinky.

His relationship with a self-made millionaire Cole is a lucrative one that originated during the George Floyd riots, where his car windows were damaged due to the uprising. She reached out to him to see if he needed help, and her kind gesture moved Hayes.

“I thought it was nice. So we wound up linking up. When we linked up, we just wanted to help the communities out so much. I remember the same day we met, we [were] trying to bail 100 inmates out of jail. So we had the same spirit, the same energy, the same willpower to believe in what we wanted to do with the community.”

He continues: “So we started out just helping, what can we partner upon, and it was sad to say, Rashad Brooks was murdered in a Wendy’s parking lot. We [were] able to give his family life insurance and provide them with a brand new car. Pinky was able to get CAU [Clarke Atlanta University] to partner [with] $600,000 in scholarships. So that was just one of many things that led us to where we [are] right now. But we started out based in a community because we know that’s what helped us build our brands.”

Today the couple shares a daughter; Hayes also has two daughters from prior relationships, and he is highly focused on building generational wealth for his progeny. In addition to being the CEO and owner of Big Daves, Hayes and Cole boast a growing portfolio of real estate properties, partnerships with Fortune 500 companies, brand deals with Pepsi and Puma, as well as product releases in major retail companies for Hayes’ egg rolls and Coles vegan dips.

In the numerous interviews he’s conducted, Hayes emphasizes the importance of ownership and self-sufficiency and believes building generational wealth should be an essential component of the Black community.

“I [saw] my father and my grandfather work every single day in my life; they had good jobs, they were blue-collar workers — construction laborers. My grandfather was a seaman farmer, and my father was also. I watched these men carry their families their whole life and take care of them really well. Then when they were dead and gone, they didn’t leave much behind,” he recalls.

He wants his family to utilize entrepreneurship more than hands-on work to further future generations. However, he also wants his community to obtain knowledge on the correct ways to use a credit card or teach them how to form an LLC and often shares tips on his Instagram page.

“I’m always going to give the people the game to be able to leverage themselves to be able to help them, and that starts with your own household. If you carry your household, you can carry the community, and that leads into your brand,” he imparts.

In addition to being an entrepreneur and community activist, Hayes is also a philanthropist who works with Cole’s a non-profit called Square 1. The foundation provides scholarships to students with a satisfactory grade point average and gives tuition assistance for students already enrolled in a college or university who may incur financial hardship.

“When I lost my father to lung cancer, I knew that if I got into a position where I can gain some power, I know my father would want me to help other people,” Hayes reflects.

His altruistic endeavors span beyond the classroom and have reached the healthcare industry, where he fed forty-plus hospital workers during the height of the pandemic. He provided food to one thousand plus customers in his neighborhood and generated $26,000 to supply the necessary funds to aid Black-owned businesses to remain open in Atlanta.

Hayes also partnered with Cole to inaugurate a life insurance campaign with Prudential.

“We’re now going live nationally where we’re signing up 25,000 Black men by the year 2023 [who] make under $30,000 a year income. We started in Atlanta, Georgia, and see if we can keep it growing, getting these big companies to keep on donating to help us carry this on until we get all Black men a chance [and] give them a resource to say, ‘Okay, it’s just not about no life or death.’ We [are] teaching financial literacy; We teach you how you can hold your policy, carry your policy on to the next person if you take care of yours,” he says.

Hayes wants members of his community to avoid being burdened by financial debt when someone in their household passes away but is also guiding individuals on other methods on how to maintain their health and wellness, “We’re trying to stop death before it actually gets there and we’re going to keep on pushing the initiative until we reach the mountaintop,” he declares.

Recently, Black Enterprise recognized him as a cultural leader and awarded him the Community Champion Award on May 19th, 2022, in his hometown of Philadelphia during their Entrepreneurs Summit.

Despite the accolades and recognition, Hayes wants future Black restaurant owners to see him as a source of inspiration, “I want to show people that you can look just like, I’m not your average CEO. I got 40 tattoos on my body. I want people to feel comfortable in their skin, in their clothing, just [have] the mindset of self-belief and saying I can do it too, that’s what I represent.”

He constantly reiterates that he used the skills and knowledge at his disposal and exploited them to build a business and wants others to feel empowered that they can do the same.

“I come from a lower-income community, and I’m doing an interview right now with [Forbes.com]. I was able to make the Forbes list [2021 The Next 1000]. So, all of my blessings happened through my hard work, starting in that little gas station, 5021 and Shapur Road in 2014, so right now, it is a nonstop grind.”

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