Salt Lake City-based Even Stevens is enthusiastically practicing what's been called capitalism with a cause, and it's looking like a recipe for success.

By David Landsel
Updated May 18, 2018
Austen Diamond / Courtesy of Even Steven Sandwiches

On a sunny day in Denver's somewhat less than fashionable West Colfax district, the future of fast casual has arrived. Located on the other side of Mile High Stadium from the city's going-gangbusters downtown, West Colfax is one of those neighborhoods politely referred to by real estate agents as being "in transition," an unlikely choice for the sleek outpost of a growing restaurant chain, but Even Stevens isn't really your typical restaurant.

Located next door to a new Alamo Drafthouse, Colorado's first location of the Salt Lake City-based sandwich shop might appear to be yet another corporate pander toward the millennial dollar, with its vintage skee-ball machine, carefully-programmed hangout areas and lots of colorful stuff on the walls, designed to tell you exactly where you are. There's a difference, here, however—the simple act of stepping inside this relentlessly cheerful establishment, and ordering something from the we-got-jokes menu (Mihami Vice! Hummazing Vegan!), also means you're giving back to the neighborhood, thanks to Even Stevens' partnerships with local non-profits.

Community-based partnerships aren’t exactly new to the restaurant industry, but from its earliest days (roughly four years ago), when there was just one store in Salt Lake, Even Stevens had a slightly different idea. For every single sandwich they sold, they would donate another—simple as that.

Austen Diamond / Courtesy of Even Steven Sandwiches

Here in the Denver store, the first to open in Colorado, you'll notice, amid the thoroughly modern, unique-to-each-location bric-a-brac, a screen with an ever-changing number. That's how many sandwiches this particular store has given away, since the day they opened last year.

There are 20 Even Stevens stores, at latest count, stretching from Seattle down to Dallas, with more on the way, including new shops in California, Oregon. Company president Michael McHenry has recently been quoted as saying he's looking to get 80 more opened up, within the next couple of years, as soon as 2020. In a recent tally, the total number of donated sandwiches was rounding towards three million, which is a lot of sandwiches. Imagine what they could do with three times the Even Stevenses.

If there's one thing non-profit organizations are familiar with, it's the mixed blessing that is donated leftover restaurant food, and that's what makes Even Stevens' giveback program so unique. Each store (they're all company-owned) partners with a handful of local organizations, from food banks and rescue missions and domestic violence shelters to Boys & Girls Clubs; these groups are set up with accounts at a food distributor, allowing them to regulate the flow of blessings, if you will, ordering what they need, when they need it, working off of a budget released at the end of every month, when the shops tally up their final sales.

Austen Diamond / Courtesy of Even Steven Sandwiches

Judging by the number of sandwiches given away, those sales are fairly impressive, particularly when you look more closely at the menu—these are some pretty premium sandwiches. (When it comes to pricing, they're right up there with the likes of Panera Bread, in the $8-$9 range.) But whatever they're doing, it's working—Even Stevens feels a little like the sandwich-focused equivalent to Austin's Torchy's Tacos, combining carefully programmed irreverence with a menu that's designed to make you relax and enjoy and surrender to the upsell.

There's The Capreezy (it's a caprese sandwich, with basil pesto). You've got the Do Gouda, which is a steak sandwich with gouda cheese. There's a torta made with Jackfruit carnitas, for the vegans, and there are all sorts of sides, from a bowl of roasted shishito peppers to loaded macaroni and cheese, loaded tater tots, and sides of beer cheese for dipping. Oh, and if you can't wake up in the morning, there's all-day breakfast, including stuffed French toast. You may be paying $9 for a sandwich, but you'll probably never have this much fun at Panera. Not without being asked to leave, anyway.