541 Eatery & Exchange

Welcome back to our second episode of the Food for Thought series. As promised, this week we will take a dive into what a local Hamilton leader is doing with a global perspective. Known and loved dearly by neighbouring citizens, this local leader is none other than the 541 Eatery and Exchange!

541 Eatery and Exchange is a non-profit café on 541 Barton Street East, where you can pay-it-forward by volunteering or by turning dollars into buttons. Founded by James Peter and Michael Bowyer, the two men set out on a mission to serve the local community in tangible ways through the love of Jesus Christ. Their idea of starting a restaurant or café came from an identified need to increase the availability of food in this part of Barton Street, traditionally known as a food “desert” with a minimal number of accessible supermarkets or restaurants nearby. The neighbourhood is also plagued with a poor social determinacy of health as measured by mortality rate, educational level reached, incidences of diabetes, heart disease, drug overdose, and much more. However, 541 Executive Director Sue Carr begs to differ that there is much more to this neighbourhood than statistics suggest. Describing it as resilient and filled with diverse people who care very much about the place they live in, she hopes that 541 is actively helping the neighbourhood put down its roots to stay here instead of being displaced via gentrification. Despite having only spent a few hours in this charming café, I firmly believe that Sue and her team have successfully been able to act as a beacon of optimism on Barton Street and are helping to fuel its resiliency. I say this in comparison to the gentrification that has already taken place around the corner on James Street North where boutiques, restaurants, and galleries thrive.

As a very unique social enterprise filled with character, 541 wholly depends on the generosity of its community. Their pay-it-forward button system encourages the community to provide for itself on a give-a-button, take-a-button basis. With each dollar donation worth one button, those in need can take a maximum of five buttons a day to then choose from a selection of nutritious and extremely affordable menu items, many of which sell for $5 or less. Sue believes there should be no difference in quality and experience between the food that people eat whether they are able to pay for it or not. Unfortunately, while food security issues surge across the city with an 18% poverty rate, 541 cannot provide food when the button jay is empty simply because they are a charity and not a soup kitchen. Even when Sue’s heart aches to provide a bowl of soup to a hungry table of people, this rule has to be enforced or else a constant effort to give without restrictions would lead to 541’s closure. However, other restaurants in the area have placed a button jar at their locations to send the proceeds to 541. With no desire to ever patent the button jar idea, Sue encourages any business to adopt the idea, which has been done by a hair dresser who showed interest in helping locals maintain their semblance despite being on the streets. Seeing how a simple idea like this can shared and adopted into other business models shows that selflessly serving the community is indeed infectious!

The café also depends highly on its team of volunteers to keep food and labour costs manageable due to the unsurprisingly low profit margins of running a foodservice establishment. This volunteer system complements having a handful of full-time staff that are paid a living wage. Many volunteers, who are also customers, hear about 541 by word-of-mouth through the community and have been inspired to put in a minimum of 4 hours every week to give back. Their volunteer team consists of retired seniors, high school students, people on community service orders, and even youth on a work placement that equips them with handy life-long skills. That being said, I had met a gentleman in the café that day who actually dedicates entire winters to volunteer at 541 while holding a summer landscaping job. As much as Sue felt indebted to these volunteers like him and is inspired by their generosity to give up their time to be at the café, I believe it is a testament to how fulfilling 541’s work is. Even Sue said it herself, “Volunteers get a taste of what it’s like to be a part of something bigger, worthwhile, and making a difference. When you’re out there and see the diversity of people eating together, you don’t get that elsewhere. Our volunteers get that.”

Another important point that was brought up during the interview was the ongoing battle for awareness for food security (our fellow friend Mike von Massow advocates the impact of food literacy amongst children here). A neglect of resources used to satisfy physiological needs inevitably affects mental health. This is especially seen in children who grow up hungry and are unable to concentrate in school due to a lack of brain development from malnourishment. Not unique to Hamilton, many people in big cities actually face very challenging decisions where they only have a few dollars each day to get by. In these situations, the trade-off between choosing to eat and not being able to afford rent or re-filling your prescriptions goes beyond my realm of understanding this disparity (*read* Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids: The Tragedy and Disgrace of Poverty in Canada by Mel Hurtig). This uncomfortable truth made me realize how so many of us do not realize our lives are abundant because we have not had to face these types of worries. And as hard as it is to swallow, I hope that you, my readers, would evaluate the privilege you have in light of the needs of your respective communities and see that not everyone benefits from gentrification in the midst of growth. While I am grateful that the buzz for social justice is on the rise, it is time for us to no longer turn a blind eye on things that need to be addressed, just as 541’s work acts as a reminder of that.

In the end, I think that whether you are religious or not, it is safe to say the 541 Eatery and Exchange lives by famous preacher Timothy Keller’s words: “The security of Jesus’ love enables you to need less, and to love more.” Before wrapping up my interview, Sue left us with these words:

“If you’ve got an idea, try it. This was a crazy idea and it should not have worked. We had no idea what we were doing. None of us had any experience doing anything like this…and here we are. We have made tremendous mistakes along the way, but we’re still here and it’s sort of working as far as we can see. So if you have a crazy idea, gather people around you and ask them if they can see that idea from where you’re standing. Get a number of people around you – don’t do it on your own – and try it. What’s the worse you could do? You could fail, like the bottom of the well would fall out, so try something! It starts with the little sowing of a seed into society and into the way we think.”

Hungry for more stories on what other sustainability warriors are doing locally? Come back next week for our final episode of the Food for Thought series as we sit down for a chat with the Paintbox Catering & Bistro in Toronto!


The aim of the Food for Thought series is to raise awareness about how business can be used for good and how it can create shared value (CSV). Different from corporate social responsibility (CSR), creating shared value seeks to create economic value for society and addresses its needs and challenges. Instead of focusing on just the bottom line, UGSRP and I, Michelina Martinez, want to challenge businesses who claim that they are driving sustainable change to see how they can create meaning through pure motives that benefit their less fortunate neighbours.

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