For years, the elegant building on the corner of Barton and Westinghouse Avenue was home to the Bank of Montreal, whose main clients were employees from Westinghouse down the street.
That was many years ago when manufacturing jobs were plentiful and one income could sustain a family of four. A gradual shift away from that sector saw the closure of companies like Westinghouse and created pockets of poverty all over the city, including neighbourhoods around the bank.
That’s why the building was the perfect choice for the 541 Eatery and Exchange or, as it’s known to loyal customers, 541. People come from all walks of life to enjoy great food and hospitality. But there’s another draw that’s made it unique.
The cafe has developed a “pay it forward” system where customers can purchase buttons for one dollar, which they put into a jar on the counter, then the buttons can be used by anyone who needs them to buy food.
The system helps feed those who need help while also nurturing a diverse community of belonging. As Sue Carr, the executive director, said, “541 exists to welcome people to eat good food together, whether they can afford to pay for it or not. We’re about building a community, one grilled cheese sandwich at a time.”
Walk inside 541 and the first thing you notice is the decor – high ceilings, tall windows that let in lots of light, and long wooden tables where everyone sits together. There’s a feeling of openness and community.
Since opening in June 2014, their numbers have grown to where they now see, on average, about 300 customers a day. About 25 percent are button sales or, as Sue calls it, cafe currency.
Calls have come in from the community as well as from across the country from people wanting to know how to set up something similar. One call came from Vancouver Island and another from someone in Brazil.
“I know there are other places that have tried to do something similar, but they have to figure out what it looks like in their own setting,” said Sue.
“An awful lot of people are only one pay cheque away from losing a place to live or one illness away from not being able to work.”
The kindness that is at the root of the button system is also evident in how the cafe works day to day. They have a core group of 15 staff members, but they rely on an army of 150 to 200 volunteers who are passionate about providing good food and food security. It’s not sustainable on its own, but they make up for it with donations.
The cafe is a program of the Compass Point Bible Church in Burlington, which allows them to receive charitable donations but they don’t oversee it and the staff aren’t members of the church.
Soon after they opened, the staff realized they had the perfect opportunity to provide other services to people. They now have a youth outreach worker and youth programming, community garden and book club, and they feature the work of local artists on their walls. There’s also been a knitting group and creative writing classes.
Nursing students come in from schools like McMaster University and Mohawk College and do placements at the cafe. They’ll sit at a table and take people’s blood pressure or provide information on certain health issues.
Since they started, a bookstore, florist shop and coffee shop have opened nearby, a testimony to the increased foot traffic drawn in by the eatery. While some of their clients are on social assistance they’ve also had people come in who have forgotten their wallet. The cafe’s policy is that everyone should be able to experience what it feels like to a warm meal.
As Sue said, “The main point is that you all eat at the same table and it’s attractive and it’s clean and the food is good.”
by Denise Davy
541 Eatery & Cafe