Even Stevens appears to be done in Utah, with eight locations now closed

A ‘nightmare’: Records, former employees detail the downfall of the sandwich shop.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah-based restaurant chain Even Stevens has closed all of its Utah stores, including 414 E. 200 South in Salt Lake City, pictured Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

Once billing itself as a “sandwich shop with a cause,” Even Stevens appears to be done in Utah.

All eight of the restaurant chain’s Utah locations are now closed. Four have had eviction notices filed against them.

The business filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but problems appear to have mounted last year, records indicate, and former employees say. Some who spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune complained of late, bounced or missing paychecks, and several submitted wage complaints.

One former general manager described using cash earned from daily business to pay past-due utility bills and other invoices, describing the evolving situation as a “nightmare.”

Even Stevens is owned by Portland, Oregon-based “omni-channel food enterprise” Headwaters Concepts, whose previous website listed Brooks Pickering as its managing partner and chief executive officer. Pickering is also listed as Even Stevens’ CEO on LinkedIn.

Health-conscious fast-casual restaurant Blue Lemon is owned by the same parent company. Six of Utah’s Blue Lemon locations are now closed, but one remains open at the Salt Lake City International Airport. At least one former employee submitted a wage complaint against Blue Lemon as well.

Pickering didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from The Tribune.

Declaring bankruptcy

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah-based restaurant chain Even Stevens has closed multiple stores after filing for bankruptcy, including 414 E. 200 South in Salt Lake City, pictured Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

Founded in 2014, Even Stevens built its brand on the promise of “buy a sandwich, give a sandwich” to a charity in need.

In reality, the company didn’t donate actual sandwiches. Instead, it would multiply the number of sandwiches sold every month by 54 cents — the average cost of each sandwich’s ingredients. Then, it would donate the calculated amount to organizations through food credits with a national food supplier, which would then deliver food for their programs.

Volunteers of America, the YWCA and Crossroads Urban Center are some of the nonprofits that received donations from Even Stevens. In 2018, Pickering told The Tribune that Even Stevens had donated more than 3 million sandwiches — worth almost $2 million.

But that year, Even Stevens suspended its giveback program in a restructuring effort to repair its finances, and around then, also closed stores in Arizona, Colorado and Texas, The Tribune previously reported.

When the “buy one, give one” program was still in place, former Even Stevens district manager Viet Ngo said the company was a “really cool place to work.”

But then there was “a huge rebuild of culture,” said Ngo, who worked for the company from 2016 to 2022.

In 2019, Even Stevens filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protections in Arizona and also closed its Provo store with the goal of reorganizing the company, said Pernell McGuire, a former attorney for Even Stevens Sandwiches LLC.

Management was in “transition, we’ll call it, or others would say turmoil,” McGuire said. Even Stevens co-founder Steve Down had been involved in a bankruptcy matter in a separate entity that he owned, which ultimately was unable to reorganize, McGuire said. “Many investors lost their money.”

According to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Down was accused of making misrepresentations by building and operating event centers — including The Falls Event Center in Salt Lake City — using high-interest loans from private investors.

Down reached out to several investors for Even Stevens in the year before it filed for bankruptcy and got a lot of people to invest either new sums or additional sums, McGuire said. The company grew too fast “in my opinion,” he said, and it spent a lot of money on renovations for its restaurants. And while Even Stevens’ “buy one, give one” model had good intent, he said, the company couldn’t afford to do that.

All that created a situation where they “could not operate profitably,” McGuire said. At the time of the 2019 bankruptcy, the board selected Pickering as the managing partner. McGuire and Pickering worked on a plan together to reorganize all of Even Stevens’ locations, McGuire said, but because of opposition from some of the landlords and creditors, that didn’t happen. They instead came up with a plan to sell all the restaurants, he said.

Pickering was putting together a group to purchase the remaining restaurants, but it was taking a while to secure funding, McGuire said.

The court ultimately converted the cases to a chapter 7 bankruptcy, and appointed a chapter 7 trustee. And that trustee continued to work with Pickering and his group. Eventually, they sold the restaurants and paid the creditors with the money they got from the sale, McGuire said.

However, James Swindler, the attorney representing the plaintiff in the eviction for the Sugar House location, said that that restaurant wasn’t sold, and instead, the bankrupt company continued operating there with a new lease, which is now “extremely delinquent.”

Eviction notices

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Four of Even Stevens' eight Utah locations have each had eviction notices filed against them, including this location at 2030 S. 900 East in Salt Lake City, pictured Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023.

The Even Stevens locations in downtown Salt Lake City, Sugar House, Draper, Cottonwood Heights, Ogden, Logan, St. George and Provo have all closed at this point.

The locations in downtown, Sugar House, Draper and Cottonwood Heights have each had eviction notices filed against them, as well as the Blue Lemon in Saratoga Springs, according to court documents. Even Stevens owes over $130,000 in unpaid rent and other fees between those four locations. The now-vacant Blue Lemon location owes almost $46,000.

However, Swindler said the eviction process hasn’t been completed at the Sugar House location because of the “difficulty” they’ve had serving papers on Even Stevens.

He said Pickering has resigned and no successor has been appointed. “The Sugar House store appears to have been abandoned,” Swindler said. “The corporate office in Midvale is vacant. Management seems to have gone underground,” which, he noted, makes it difficult to serve legal papers to them.

The Logan location alone owes $157,731.72 in past due rental payments, late fees, accrued interest, unpaid property taxes and more.

As of Sept. 10, Even Stevens was still listed on the website of Headwaters Catering, a catering company connected to parent company Headwaters Concepts. A member of the catering company didn’t respond to a reporter asking if they still served Even Stevens food.

Even Stevens also owes $250,629.22 in tax liens to the Utah Tax Commission, records show. Pickering owes $727,934.20 in tax liens.

Bouncing paychecks

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Restaurant Blue Lemon in City Creek at 55 W South Temple remains closed, pictured Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. Blue Lemon and Even Stevens, which have both filed for bankruptcy, are owned by the same parent company, Headwaters Concepts.

While Even Stevens was in bankruptcy, it had to pay its employees with paper checks, which would frequently bounce, Ngo said. Or checks would be distributed at 4 p.m. on paydays, making it so employees would have to rush to their banks to deposit their checks.

The circumstances created an “unsteadiness” about where Even Stevens was heading, Ngo said. “People were just staying there just to stay there,” he said. “They [didn’t] believe in the brand or the culture anymore.”

Ngo said he would take his paychecks late in 2018 because he had enough in his “rainy day fund” to cover expenses. Over about six months in 2022, Ngo estimates four of his checks bounced.

In the past year or so, Ngo said, “is where things started turning really, really south.”

In March, Carter Deragon, a former employee of the Blue Lemon location in Highland, filed a complaint against Blue Lemon through the Utah Labor Commission, alleging that the company owed him $1,710.49 in unpaid wages, records obtained by The Tribune show.

Since neither Blue Lemon nor Pickering responded to the complaint or paid the back wages, the Utah Labor Commission ordered them in July to pay the $1,710.49, plus a penalty in the same amount, half of which will go to Deragon and the other half to the labor commission.

“Our biggest issue from the beginning was that they should be held accountable,” said William Deragon, Carter’s father. “And if they had even come to my son Carter and said, ‘We’re really sorry, we’re trying to help you,’ we wouldn’t be here.”

Eight wage complaints have separately been filed with the Utah Labor Commission against Even Stevens, according to information obtained through a public records request. Two complaints were dismissed on the finding that no unpaid wages were owed, and the claims were closed. For another, the commission issued an order to pay; since it hasn’t been paid, it will be sent to collections. The five other complaints remain open investigations.

Rosalio Salas, a former general manager at the Blue Lemon location in Highland, said working there was “very stressful” before he left in January, because his employees would come to him asking for their paychecks, but the checks would bounce. He said his own paychecks would bounce as well.

Devin Wonacott, a former general manager at Even Stevens in Boise — which was evicted in May — said that around December, his employees’ checks started bouncing, and then some of the replacement checks that they’d receive would bounce as well. Wonacott started having payroll wired to him, but those payments started becoming “more and more late.”

“I actually got to the point where I was taking all of our cash that we would accrue throughout our day’s business, and I was using that money to make payments for past-due invoices,” Wonacott said. “I was paying our electric bills, our water bills, trying to set up payment plans with all of these outstanding accounts that we had due. It was just becoming a nightmare.”

He said he gave some cash to the employees as well, to pay essential bills. In June, Wonacott estimated that Pickering owed him about $1,000 in back wages.

Employees’ rights

Lauren Scholnick, an employment law attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, said that “paying wages is the highest obligation that an employer has to its employees.”

According to the Utah Payment of Wages Act, “there’s a very direct duty, when someone works for you, you must pay them, period,” Scholnick said.

If you leave your job voluntarily, your employer can pay you on the next regular payday, she said. If you’re fired, your employer has 24 hours to pay you.

If you are currently employed and you haven’t been paid on your regular payday, you should send written communication to your boss notifying them that you haven’t gotten your paycheck and that you expect to be paid as soon as possible under the Utah Payment of Wages Act.

Doing that will trigger your rights to additional penalties beyond the wages you are owed, Scholnick said. If your employer doesn’t pay you within 24 hours of receiving that written demand, your wages will continue from the date of demand until paid, not to exceed 60 days, at the same pay rate.

If you’re owed $10,000 or less, you can file a wage claim online with the Utah Labor Commission, Scholnick said. If you are owed more than $10,000, you can sue in court for the money you’re owed.

— Tribune staff writer Tony Semerad contributed to this story.

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