Even Stevens markets itself as a sandwich company that also does good. When you walk into the University Village location, large letters painted on a wall read, “Eat and Give,” accompanied by an illustration of a hand making a peace sign.
Another sign on the wall reads, “Purchase, Partner, Provide,” and a message underneath the menu—which, along with $12 sandwiches, features Party Tots, Saucy Tots, Loaded Mac, and other foods popular among toddlers and stoners—explains how it works: “For every sandwich sold, Even Stevens donates a sandwich to a local non-profit.”
That’s a little misleading: According to a former employee, for each sandwich sold, the company actually deposits the wholesale cost of a sandwich—which they say is $0.54—into an account with Sysco, the multinational food distribution company. Then, at the end of each month, four local nonprofits that provide food for people experiencing poverty are invited to shop at Sysco on that account. In Seattle, those nonprofits are the University District Food Bank, Roots Young Adult Shelter, Familyworks, and Elizabeth Gregory Home, all of which are advertised in the restaurant. It’s a good idea: customers can feel good about their purchase, Even Stevens gets to market itself as a company that cares, and people in need get fed. Since 2014, according to the company’s website, they’ve donated over 3.7 million sandwiches, which equals nearly $2 million worth of food.
But while they continue to advertise this program, Even Stevens apparently hasn’t donated anything to their local nonprofit partners in over six months, confirmed to The Stranger by the company's interim president, Spencer Viernes.
The last donation from Even Stevens to the University District Food Bank, which operates a walk-in food bank four days a week, was in August of 2018, shortly after the food bank announced the partnership in its summer newsletter. “The more sandwiches they sell,” an article about the partnership read, “the bigger the benefits are for us.”
Even Stevens told the food bank that donations would be reinstated this year, but no date has been set. And this isn’t just in Seattle. This week, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that Even Stevens, which is based in Utah and has locations around the West, suspended all their charitable giving last summer, impacting 80 non-profits.
Viernes was brought on last July to help restructure the company after steep financial losses. (Two months before, founder Steve Down was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of committing fraud and misleading customers in a separate business venture. Down agreed to pay a $150,000 fine and was not required to admit wrongdoing, but he is no longer affiliated with Even Stevens.) In a phone interview, Viernes said that the company has a “challenging financial path,” and according to the Tribune, after rapidly expanding over the past five years, today, Even Stevens is losing around $80,000 a month. They’ve closed stores in Texas and Colorado, as well as five of their eight locations in Arizona. The donation program stopped because they just couldn’t afford it.
Viernes says that they hope to resume donations in 2019, and that all local partners will receive donations retroactively, but the fact that donations have been paused is not apparent at the Seattle location, which continues to advertise the donation program as though it’s still active.
This could be illegal. A representative from the state Attorney General’s office told me that while they are unable to comment directly on Even Stevens, “Washington law prohibits unfair and deceptive business practices, including misrepresentations to consumers about whether the business donates a portion of its sales, revenues, or other item of value to a charity or nonprofit. When a seller of goods or services represents that the proceeds will support charity, the seller is making a charitable solicitation.”
Management at the Seattle location could not be reached for comment. Viernes says that local shops should be communicating with non-profit partners on how they can continue to help serve them while donations are suspended, but the University District Food Bank, at least, hasn't heard squat.