Addressing nationwide food insecurity while creating a thriving restaurant business should be a Herculean task, but Michael McHenry tackles formidable projects several times a week. As the president of Even Stevens Sandwiches, McHenry exudes an unfailing optimism that’s carried the hip sandwich shop to six states with 20 locations—with many more scheduled to open in 2018.
Designed for the “elevated sandwich user,” Even Stevens combines everything the millennial crowd embraces. Craft sandwiches, a local vibe and a charitable cause have propelled Even Stevens to build an organization that employs hundreds and serves millions.
Even Stevens opened its first location in downtown Salt Lake City in 2014 and introduced the concept of donating one sandwich for every sandwich sold. “At the time we thought, we’re going to sell a sandwich, then we’re going to make a sandwich and give it to someone. Of course, that program evolved into what is the most sustaining cause initiative in retail in the country,” McHenry says.
McHenry has an extensive background in the restaurant industry. He worked for 15 years in brand development, concept and operational performance before partnering with Even Stevens owner Steve Down to create the first restaurant in the industry that can correlate revenue with social impact.
Creating the “buy one, give one” model brought unique challenges, including getting buy-in from consumers. McHenry says he knew the restaurant wouldn’t succeed without great-tasting, affordable food. He wanted customers to order a craft sandwich and side, and pair it with a glass of beer, wine or soda, and have it delivered in less than six minutes. The craft-casual restaurant attracts chefs who want to carve out their niche by creating an inspired dining experience.
Improving the model
It took less than three years to sell and donate a million sandwiches, and by the end of 2017, Even Stevens had donated over two million sandwiches to more than 70 nonprofit organizations.
Figuring out the logistics for such an undertaking was a process. The company worked with the YWCA in Salt Lake as its first charitable partner, and gradually created a system that benefited both entities. Now every month the nonprofit partners are given a list of more than 100 sandwich ingredients they can order online. The organizations place the order, often a $2,500 value, and the food is drop-shipped to the door with Even Stevens picking up the bill.
“It’s really about the reallocation of money. The YWCA no longer has to spend that money on food. That’s where we’re driving change. We’ve improved on the TOMS model that was so influential to us in the startup phase. I think we developed a program that is second to none,” says McHenry.
“At the time we thought, we’re going to sell a sandwich, then we’re going to make a sandwich and give it to someone. Of course, that program evolved into what is the most sustaining cause initiative in retail in the country.” – Michael McHenry, Even Stevens
Following a close second to the compassionate capitalism aspect of Even Stevens is McHenry’s enthusiasm for team development. He says the company strategically looks for individuals who want to make a difference and who are passionate about the wellbeing of their neighborhoods.
Creating a workplace culture that reflects the company’s mission means providing ongoing training, education and support to its employees.
“Our greatest investment isn’t in buildings or real estate,” McHenry says. “It’s the individuals that we’re investing in that bring these neighborhoods to life and allow us to be a catalyst through our craft and mission. It’s who we invest in, not what we invest in.”
Even Stevens donates around 100,000 sandwiches a month, and McHenry says overcoming challenges has contributed to the ongoing success of the brand. He describes the Even Stevens culture as being “resilient, scrappy and full of passion” with a mind-set that adapts to obstacles with creativity and excitement.
“Every day I’m humbly blown away by how gifted our team is in driving the Even Stevens initiative and the eat-to-give philosophy across the country. We’re recognized as one of the most progressive brands in the country, but one that’s based out of Utah and has the opportunity and potential to go global.”
Along for the ride
When it comes to working with vendors, McHenry’s philosophy is “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The company partners with local bakeries, breweries, coffee roasters and farms to boost the local community’s economy. Each of the eight Even Stevens locations in Utah works with merchants from that area to provide a catalyst for the business community.
“We take their business with ours and we do it in a way that we become the most localized restaurant in the neighborhood. That’s put us in a situation where you walk into a pretty rad and unique environment that’s specifically designed for the neighborhood where we’re doing business.”
A catalyst for change
McHenry says his job is to be a voice for social change, to find artisans in the food industry, to partner with nonprofits that are tackling food insecurity, and to find new neighborhoods where the sandwich shop can create a sustained impact. He considers it his mission to fight the war on hunger one sandwich at a time, and to show that businesses can be wildly successful and sustainable.
“I believe anytime you are front-running a new territory, concept or new way of doing business, you must be absolute on your vision and unwavering in your pursuit,” McHenry says. “It’s one thing to want to help. It’s another thing to figure out a system where you can help sustainably. Who would have thought two slices of bread could have been such a catalyst?”