Student groups report long wait times for Blaze Pizza fundraiser checks


Lauren Duquette/The Daily Northwestern

Numerous student groups reported long delays in receiving fundraising checks from Blaze Pizza in Evanston. At least 14 groups still haven’t received checks from events last spring.

Alice Yin, Campus Editor

When Sandeep Bharadwaj signed up his student group for a fundraiser at Blaze Pizza in Evanston, he did not expect that it would take 11 weeks — and what he said were more than 20 phone calls — to get his money.

The McCormick junior, who is president of Northwestern Global Medical Brigades, is one of 17 students who said their student groups encountered delays and communication issues while attempting to secure checks from Spring Quarter fundraisers with the Blaze Pizza at 1737 Sherman Ave.

Blaze Pizza’s Evanston location opened March 5 and began to host fundraising events for student groups that month.

Fourteen student groups who held fundraisers with Blaze Pizza during Spring Quarter said this week they had not received checks from the fundraiser as of Monday afternoon:

  1. Academy of Music and Arts for Special Education
  2. A-NU-Bhav
  3. Dance Marathon
  4. Extreme Measures
  5. Korean American Student Association
  6. NU Gives Back
  7. Phi Sigma Pi
  8. NU Raas
  9. Sigma Alpha Iota
  10. Spoon University
  11. Supplies for Dreams (NU Chapter)
  12. Students for Sensible Drug Policy
  13. Undergraduate Premedical Society
  14. Women’s Club Lacrosse

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz said Evanston officials have no role in these types of fundraisers.

“Private businesses can share profits as they see fit,” he wrote in an email to The Daily.

University spokesman Al Cubbage was unable to provide information Wednesday on whether NU has any oversight of student group fundraising agreements.

The Daily first contacted Blaze Pizza’s corporate offices and Evanston location on Monday inquiring about the checks NU student groups said they never received. Since then, two of the 14 student groups told The Daily they have been able to pick up their checks in person.

Four other groups reported that they received their funds, although three, including Global Brigades, said they sent multiple emails or phone calls inquiring about their money:

  1. Burlesque Show
  2. Northwestern Global Medical Brigades
  3. Relay For Life
  4. They Forget, We Remember

“It was a very long, tedious, arduous process,” Bharadwaj said. “It makes us not know if we’re going to do a fundraiser again.”

On Tuesday, Adam Cummis, president of the Chicago area franchises of Blaze Pizza, showed The Daily eight checks from NU student group fundraisers that he plans to distribute, two of which he did not disclose the group names of.

Out of the six checks identified, two were dated on Tuesday. Cummis said those two checks were reissued from earlier this year for reasons he did not know.  

The other four checks, as well as the two unidentified ones, were returned by the post office after being mailed out, likely due to issues with the address listed, he said.

Planning a fundraiser

Cummis said Blaze Pizza participates in philanthropy and has been a good partner for NU students. He said the restaurant usually processes checks “in a reasonable amount of time” after a fundraising event.

“This is the first that I’m hearing about it,” he said, regarding NU student groups not receiving checks.

Evanston’s Blaze Pizza general manager, Persio Nunez, deferred a request for comment to another person in management.

The procedure for Blaze Pizza’s fundraisers requires participants to submit a form, which is available online. Afterward, both parties sign a contract agreeing to a sponsorship.

Blaze Pizza’s website lists procedures for setting up the fundraiser with an explanation of how the money will be distributed: “After the event, Blaze Pizza will put the check in the mail. All you have to do is open the mailbox. And open the letter. And then sign the check. And then put it in the bank. We’re making it sound complicated. It’s not.”

In a copy of a contract obtained by The Daily, Blaze Pizza agreed to provide one of the student groups 20 percent of profits the restaurant made from customers who presented the organization’s promotional material during the event’s specified hours. The NU student organization was then obligated to distribute promotional materials and display the Blaze Pizza logo. The contract had no reference to the method and timeframe in which the money would be issued to the student group.

This type of sponsorship agreement is commonly referred to by NU students as “profit sharing” in promotional Facebook events and flyers, although Cummis said these events are considered fundraisers, not profit shares.

An ‘ultimatum’

For Global Brigades, Bharadwaj said the club did not secure the $135.52 from its June 6 fundraiser until the evening of Aug. 24. The next morning, members flew to Panama for a summer medical brigade trip, which was the reason for the fundraiser in the first place, he said.

Bharadwaj said that after a couple of months of not receiving the check in the mail, the student group sent someone to ask for an in-person pickup on Aug. 12. He said the group was told the restaurant could not issue a new check with the first one still in transit.

From then on, Bharadwaj said he called the Evanston location every couple of days.

Members of Global Brigades made an estimated total of more than 20 phone calls to the Evanston location from June to August, Bharadwaj said.

“We would call every one to two days,” he said. “We’d call in the morning, call during lunch, call during night. They said they would give you a call back and Persio, who is the owner, isn’t here.”

Cummis said Tuesday he was not aware of the reported phone calls.

Weinberg junior Katherine Yao, Global Brigades’ co-vice president of fundraising, pressed the Evanston location’s management in what she called an “ultimatum” email two days before the Panama trip.

“Our brigaders leave for Panama in two days, and there are some students who don’t have enough funds for the trip and are owed money from this fundraiser,” she wrote in the email obtained by The Daily. “This is a matter of extreme importance because these brigaders’ trips may be in jeopardy, and the fact that the money has been withheld from them until less than 48 hours to their departure is absolutely unacceptable. We’ve called in many times in the past month, and every time, someone has told us that they didn’t have an answer and took down our name and number, but we never end up getting a follow-up call.”

In about an hour, Nunez replied with an apology, saying he was on vacation and could provide the money in cash the evening of Aug. 24, which Yao agreed to.

Searching for the checks

On Tuesday, Cummis showed The Daily evidence of checks he issued to six student groups. The checks for Phi Sigma Pi and the Undergraduate Premedical Society — the two that were reissued — were dated Oct. 6. The Korean American Student Association’s check was dated July 15, while Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Sigma Alpha Iota each had a check dated June 4.

Cummis did not have information on why Phi Sigma Pi’s and the Undergraduate Premedical Society’s Oct. 6 checks were allegedly reissued. He also said he did not know why SSDP and SAI had not yet received their checks, dated June 4, by the Tuesday morning meeting with The Daily, although he said those two checks, along with KASA’s check, had been mailed but returned to him by the post office.

Cummis said checks for NU Gives Back and Academy of Music and Arts for Special Education had been mailed, though they have not “cleared through the bank” yet. He was unable to verify this information through documentation, though he said AMASE’s check was sent out on Sept. 23.

On Wednesday, Cummis told the Daily that after inquiring about NU’s chapter of Supplies for Dreams, he could vouch that Blaze Pizza mailed out a check June 4 that has also not been “cleared through the bank.”

“I cannot provide verification,” he said about the checks he said were mailed. “There is no way to provide verification if they are mailed.”

Regarding the whereabouts of checks for Dance Marathon, Women’s Club Lacrosse, NU Raas and Extreme Measures, Cummis responded on Tuesday, “I am looking for that. I don’t have information.”

Spoon University told The Daily as of Wednesday, the organization has not received a check. Cummis declined to comment on additional cases after his Tuesday meeting with The Daily.

All of these student groups told The Daily this week they had not been paid as of Monday.

In transit

Several students reported to The Daily that they experienced the Blaze Pizza employee they were communicating with had switched during their correspondence.

The Evanston location has had the same general manager, Persio Nunez, from the first day of operation, Cummis said.

“We’ve had changes in all levels of management other than Persio for all employees,” Cummis said. “It happens in every restaurant. Everybody has varying responsibility. We have a different variety: shift leaders, team leaders, general manager.”

Hannah Dion-Kirschner, AMASE’s co-finance director, said she noticed a switch in who she was contacting.

“When I called a couple weeks ago, the person previously in charge of the profit share was no longer there and the manager I spoke to also told me he didn’t even have access to some of the files,” the Weinberg and Bienen sophomore said.

Five student groups — the Undergraduate Premedical Society, Extreme Measures, A-NU-Bhav, SAI and the Burlesque Show — have forwarded emails to The Daily of their members repeatedly requesting fundraising checks from Blaze Pizza in Evanston.

All nine other groups that mentioned missing checks told The Daily they made a considerable effort to reach out to Blaze Pizza.

Burlesque, along with Global Brigades, Relay For Life and the group They Forget, We Remember, are the only groups who told The Daily they received a check from Blaze Pizza.

Jordan Gross, president of They Forget, We Remember, a student group promoting Alzheimer’s awareness, said Blaze Pizza eventually sent him the check around June, but he said he had to send multiple emails to secure the payment from the group’s May 7 fundraiser.

“It was a drawn-out process but they kept their promise,” the Weinberg senior said. “To hear that some people didn’t receive that money, it wouldn’t be 100 percent surprising but I feel if they persisted enough they would get their money.”

Relay For Life told The Daily it received its check almost immediately after its March 17 fundraiser.

Moving forward

Cummis said these communication and fundraising concerns are atypical.

“We have donated over $3,000 to Northwestern organizations in the process,” he said on Tuesday. “We are doing events to be part of the community and be community partners — certainly not to upset people.”

Bharadwaj, the Global Brigade president, said student groups should expend the majority of their efforts on the fundraiser, not on pursuing the check.

“We could bring this much business to Blaze — it’s easy to take it away,” he said.

Cummis said he could not comment on the communication problems the students reported.

“If that happened, I’m disappointed about it,” he said. “That shouldn’t be the case — we should be responsive and that’s my expectation.”

The franchise president said his office has discussed a possible system of sponsors picking up the checks in-person at the store location.

“We’re going to evaluate our policies and procedures to make sure that fundraising events go well and people receive checks in a timely manner,” Cummis said.

For Paavani Reddy, co-treasurer of A-NU-Bhav, waiting for the dance team’s check from Blaze Pizza left her frustrated, especially given pressing travel costs that the group incurs. But the Weinberg sophomore said she noticed a possibility of organizational issues within the corporation that were outside of the Evanston management team’s control. She said she recalled Nunez’s responses were sympathetic, and said the restaurant employees at Evanston had also been kind.

“I hope they do sort out their whole profit share thing because it’s profitable for student groups,” she said. “They are such a new restaurant and people liked doing profit shares. And it would be a bummer if they couldn’t do it.”

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Twitter: @alice__yin