Derrick Hayes, founder of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks, reveals his formula to be the next fast-food king.
By Diane Brady, Forbes Staff
To make the perfect Philly Cheesesteak, Derrick Hayes says, you have to start with the right water. The water in Philadelphia, he insists, gives the bread a distinctive taste and consistency. Then it’s important to get the right cut of meat and prepare it a certain way with the right seasoning. Hayes’ formula is a patented blend of 13 herbs and spices. Like Colonel Harland Sanders, who kept his recipe for the 11 herbs and spices of Kentucky Fried Chicken in a vault in Louisville, Hayes keeps his recipe in a vault. The only person he’s shared it with is Aisha “Pinky” Cole, his wife and fellow entrepreneur who created the Slutty Vegan restaurant chain and brand.
Hayes, 36, was inspired to launch his Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks chain after tasting what passed for a “Philly” when he moved to Atlanta. He chose the name “Big Dave” to honor his father, who died of lung cancer in 2009. He credits his grandfather with teaching him how to make the iconic sandwich. The Grammy Award-winning rapper and actress Eve, a Philadelphia native, put Big Dave’s on the map when she stopped by the gas station where he’d set up shop to try a sandwich and then raved about it to her fans on social media. Says Hayes: “The next day, I had lines out the door.”
He met Cole in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, when protestors broke the windows of his flagship location in downtown Atlanta and she reached out through Instagram to ask if he needed help. He declined help but asked to meet and immediately felt that he’d met his soul-mate. “I can remember sitting there and I was looking at her, looking at myself because she was a reflection of me,” he says. “My beliefs, my wants, my dreams, my hopes, my needs, everything was hitting right on there.”
The Power of Franchising
Now, with seven stores to his name and another on the way in Charlotte, North Carolina, Hayes is about to announce a 10-store deal to start franchising the brand in “a state where oranges grow.” He is talking to several potential partners about expanding nationwide, with plans to get to 100 units within one to two years. He’s also partnering with Cole on new products and philanthropic projects.
“What makes me feel good when I get a kid that walks up to me and says they changed their life because of me or they got out of the streets because of me or they want to do so many great things in the world because of me,” says Hayes.
For more insights on how Hayes built his brand and his road map for what’s next, click on the video above.