It is 2:30 on a Thursday afternoon, when most restaurants are empty, but at the 541 Eatery and Exchange on Barton Street and Westinghouse every table is occupied. The restaurant is housed in an abandoned Bank of Montreal branch that at one time served the Westinghouse plant and its employees who in the industrial boom of early 1900s lived in the area, which at that time was a viable residential neighbourhood. The past 30 years has been a period of decline and now the area surrounding 541 is listed as a code-red neighbourhood where poverty and poor health are the norm. But 541 is changing all that. As one volunteer described it. “People who normally get the last will receive the first (in terms of quality) here at 541.”
To this challenging set of neighbourhood circumstances came Michael Bowyer, a onetime chef and now pastor at the Compass Point Bible Church in Burlington, as well as James Peters, President of Hadrian Manufacturing, with a shared vision to create a place where people could get affordable, yet high quality nutritious food served in a comfortable and welcoming environment. What they wanted to avoid at all costs was a sterile, institutional soup kitchen. 541 is bright and airy with the original hardwood floors from the bank. The centrepiece of the restaurant is a massive wooden table where groups of people and people who don’t know each other can sit. This is the exchange part of the eatery and exchange concept.
The food is affordable—a hot roast beef or pork meal is priced at $4. A full breakfast $5. .” Eveything is presented in a classy fashion on real plates with cutlery. It is one of the few places in Hamilton where you can get a good cappuccino at 7am on a Saturday. For those who can’t afford even the discounted prices, there is a novel currency exchange involving buttons. Those who can afford to, will, in addition to paying for their own meal; purchase a button or two for a Loonie each and these sit in a jar next to the cash register. If a patron is a bit short, they can use up to 4 buttons a day to buy their meal. 541 Executive Director Sue Carr who previously was a chaplain at the Good Shepherd and is also an ordained minister, says approximately 10,000 buttons are redeemed a month.
The unique aspect of 541 is the diversity of the clientele. On any given day there will be students from the nearby schools and neighborhood moms with their kids, but also a surprising number of business people, church members and even the firemen from the nearby firehall at Barton and Wentworth and passing police. In addition to the 7 full time and part time staff there is a roster of more than 250 volunteers; including an MD and a PhD who come from all walks of life and work approximately one four-hour shift per week, adding further diversity to the restaurant. “I think we are all better when people are not siloed off,” says Sue Carr, “people need to rub shoulders.” She adds that the volunteer mix includes professionals who cook elsewhere for a living. As a result of the success of 541 many business people and investors are starting to eye the Barton Street area as a possible next step for investment; and while she welcomes the attention and support, Sue’s greatest fear is that Barton Street will become gentrified too quickly forcing a disadvantaged population to seek scarce affordable housing elsewhere.
Sue Carr does not view the 541 concept as a social experiment. She rejects the idea that she and her colleagues “have come here (Barton Street) to do good things for you. People have this view that folks on ODSP are shiftless. In my experience they are resourceful”, said Sue, “they learn to shop cheaply after spending almost all of their benefits on rent. Many of the people on assistance will pay cash for their meals at the beginning of the month and then use buttons near the end.”
The operation is more or less breaking even, but can always use donations. Those wishing to donate can visit http://fivefortyone.ca/get-involved/, or better yet drop by, purchase a coffee or a quality meal in pleasant surroundings… and buy some buttons.