There is no shortage of Hamilton businesses that have made giving back to this community a key part of their model, but there are some for whom it’s their brand.
IntheHammer is taking a look at some of these over the next little while to find out what makes them work and how they’re making our city a better place.
What is the key to longevity for a not-for-profit restaurant on Barton Street?
The answer, according to 541 Eatery and Exchange’s Robert Miller, is community.
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Inside the 541, business is humming during a weekday lunch hour.
Since 2014, 541 has been operating on an exchange system — customers come for the very reasonably priced food and buy buttons which then become currency to purchase food for someone else.
It’s a ‘pay-it-forward’ type system that has fed locals for the past five years and still thrives.
“The neighbourhood has really taken ownership,” said Miller, who is one of the front-house managers and who has been working there since 2016 and was a volunteer before that. The eatery, he said, has become a matter of pride in the community and there’s a vested interest in maintaining this space where everyone feels a sense of belonging.
Every day, approximately 300 buttons (the equivalent of $300) is used to buy food at 541. The number fluctuates throughout the year, with things picking up around Christmas time, Miller explained.
They keep their prices as low as possible and a large part of what makes that possible is the number of volunteers that work there. Approximately 70 to 75 per cent of the business is run by volunteers.
“The Christian world view,” Miller said, “is what fuels the staff here.” The concept of ‘love thy neighbour’ in particular plays a big role in keeping the community invested and engaged.
“One of the things I tell volunteers and front-house managers is that you need to get to know people by name,” Miller said. “Sometimes in life, there are things beyond our understanding and the best thing any of us can do is make eye contact with a person; listen to them. Recognize the inherent dignity of every person.”
The concept of 541 was born out of a ministry based out of the neighbourhood that engaged the community through an initiative called ‘sister care.’ Representatives of the ministry would get to know the women working the streets in the neighbourhood and would try to help address some of their basic needs. It became apparent the need for affordable food was a pressing issue.
Today, there is a line up of regulars every morning, Miller says, who come in to eat, have coffee and chat. The bright open, historic space has become a safe and positive gathering point for the neighbourhood that brings together people from different socioeconomic backgrounds over delicious food. (Side note: The breakfast sandwich is just out of this world).
541’s to-die-for breakfast sandwich and a flat white.
The challenge moving forward, Miller says, is to find a more stable and regular stream of fundraising through monthly donations.
“We’re always working at what is the essence of this place,” he said. “This next chapter, we’re realizing the need for monthly support.”
To learn more about 541 Eatery and Exchange or to donate visit their website.