A New Form of Currency
In the shadows of James Street North and Ottawa Street’s bustling arts and culture scene is a stretch of forgotten territory known as “Hamilton’s food desert.” Crumbling buildings, boarded windows and abandoned storefronts surround Barton Street East’s newest restaurant, 541 Eatery and Exchange. Standing tall – it’s brick exterior, big windows and bright turquoise entrance brings a shining beacon of hope to one of Canada’s most impoverished neighbourhoods.
“It’s not a charity or a soup kitchen,” says executive director Reverend Sue Carr.
“It’s a restaurant that uses a unique currency system to give customers equal access to fresh and affordable food.”
The “pay it forward” model gives paying customers the opportunity to purchase a button ($1 each) to be placed in a jar and made available for anyone to redeem towards a meal of their own.
Neil, a retired Hamilton firefighter, comes just for the coffee. “It’s the best in the city,” he says. “And if I ever forget my wallet, I just borrow a button.”
Feed Your Soul
An affordable place to grab a bite, 541 Eatery and Exchange feeds more than just an empty stomach. Diners gather from all corners of the community to break bread, exchange concerns, or just talk about the weather. “It’s really a place for everyone,” says Reverend Carr. The former bank boasts high ceilings, white brick walls, hardwood floors, hanging plants and harvest wood tables – a trendy open space to accommodate large crowds.
But even on this idle Tuesday afternoon it’s hard to find an available seat. Today’s lunch specials include curried potato and leek soup for $2, fresh quinoa beet and pear salad for $5 and pulled pork sandwiches, $5 each. In the warmer months, fresh produce is harvested from their backyard community garden. Gourmet baked goods from pomegranate orange scones ($2 each) to M&M cookies ($1.50 each) are all made in house.
We’re Better Together
If not for the food and good company, 541 Eatery is a place to witness the heart of Hamilton in plain sight. From the chefs, to front-of-house baristas and servers, only 20% of the team are paid staff. “Volunteers are the pulse of 541,” says Reverend Carr. On Sundays the restaurant is closed, but Reverend Carr leads a service and provides a free meal for anyone in attendance.
A city on the cusp of a creative renaissance, 541 Eatery paints a portrait of the Hamilton character. A community that celebrates the underdog, repairs the broken and believes that there’s room for everyone at the table.