The instant you walk into 541 Eatery & Exchange you know you’ve entered a unique public space. A group of children play in the corner with toys, while two mothers – cradling steaming cups of coffee – chat together at a small table, stuffing bites of grilled cheese into the mouths of their happy toddlers.

A large group gather a few feet away, their raucous laughter so loud that the walls nearly shake, while they spoon colourful bowls of soup into their mouths and cut into thick slices of decadent brownie. At the same large, wooden table, a man sits quietly sipping his coffee. Across from him a young couple eat and smile, talking comfortably together while drinking pop and enjoying a breakfast sandwich.

A long line-up curves around the small eatery, a mix of people waiting to be served by one of the many volunteers behind the counter. The prices on the menu are shockingly low, especially when you see the food options available. A bowl of curried leek and potato soup is $4, a hearty pulled pork sandwich is $7. Coffee is $1.

Nothing in the store is cheap, all high quality products are sourced, and as much as possible, local food is served. Everything is made in house, from the dazzling array of muffins to the delicious and filling sandwiches. 541 Eatery & Exchange, located at 541 Barton St E, in Hamilton, Ontario, offers nutritious meals at affordable prices to anyone who walks through the doors.

So, what’s the catch?

Sitting on the counter is a large mason jar with about 25 buttons in all shapes and sizes. The buttons act as currency for those that cannot afford to purchase a meal. Each button is worth $1, and each customer can use 5 buttons per day. Some customers pay with all buttons, some use a mixture of buttons and cash, while others may pay for their meal and buy additional buttons for someone else to use.

Sue Carr, the Executive Director of 541 Eatery & Exchange, said the vision became reality in 2014 to create a space for people to gather and eat together.

“We serve a lot of people that have become like family,” said Carr.

On average 541 Eatery goes through 12,000 buttons monthly, or $12,000 dollars, all of which are purchased by customers, or large donations provided by groups, companies and individuals. Carr said that meals are accessible thanks in large part to the 200 volunteers that come through each week, and by donations made by the community.

“We would love to buy everything local and organic, but the reality is if we did that we couldn’t keep the food accessible,” shared Carr.

The Eatery serves Hewitt’s Dairy, which comes from nearby Caledonia. Produce suppliers are typically small scale and as local as possible, which can be more difficult in the winter. In the summer produce comes from A Rocha Farm in Puslinch, as well as from a small urban community garden at the back of 541 Eatery. All food is made in house, from scratch, from sandwiches, to baked goods, and homemade lemonade. The Eatery does not offer any deep-fried foods, which keeps their offering healthy to their patrons.

“We try and keep our menu seasonally based, so that we can reflect what is available more cheaply. If we feature produce from far away it’s going to be expensive,” shared Carr.

Carr said that she hopes through the initiative that people in the Barton Street area are eating healthier and growing more connected to the food that they eat.

Barton Street is known as an area with rampant poverty and businesses have struggled to stay afloat. 541 Eatery & Exchange is deeply invested in the community, and works closely with neighbourhood groups and other businesses in the area. The local Eatery brings in many new faces to the community as well.

“People eat together because they’re hungry, not because they belong to an economic strata,” said Carr.

People of all walks of life, different generations, and a wide economic demographic come and sit together at the welcoming tables, rubbing shoulders, and exchanging much more than a meal with one another.

The exchange at 541 Eatery happens in more ways than simply trading buttons for food. 541 offers accessibility to foods that have been delegated to the wealthy. Through their dirt cheap prices, they have welcomed the entire community to the table, not just the ones that can afford local and sustainable food.

541 offers real, home-cooked, and local food to groups of people who have been served last, and given least within our society and communities. The revolutionary thing about the Eatery is that they are bridging the divide between the wealthy and the impoverished, and welcome all to the table.

Carr made sure to point out that the Barton Street community was there when they arrived, already vibrant, and already connected, and they will be there when they leave.

But 541 Eatery & Exchange has offered an opportunity to create a community outside of Barton Street, and introduced friendships between groups of people that may have never crossed paths without the long, inviting tables, and decadent home cooked food at the little cafe with a big heart.

To find out more visit 541 Eatery & Exchange.

Story by Brianna Bell
Photography by Daniel Bell

July 2, 2018