Hamilton eatery brings power to the people
HAMILTON, ON—Along a strip of boarded up and rundown storefronts, a new restaurant has opened with the mandate to empower local residents.
The 541 Eatery and Exchange opened on June 20 on Hamilton’s Barton Street East and will provide fresh sustainable food at an affordable price.
Co-founder Michael Bowyer said the project took about six years to develop after he and a team considered several options to help the community, which he said is in an area known as a “red zone” due to its high levels of poverty.
“Because people in the neighbourhood are hungry, we figured out we’re going to have to feed people,” Bowyer told ORN. “So we kept coming back to food and I thought, ‘What about a restaurant?’”
Customers can pay it forward by purchasing buttons for a dollar, which can be used by those who cannot afford food or drink: one button equals one dollar. The Eatery sells coffee for a dollar and a full breakfast of two eggs, bacon, potatoes and toast for $5. A roast beef or chicken dinner with potatoes and vegetables is priced at $4. Bowyer said the menu is designed so that nothing stays in the building for more than two days, with last night’s dinner being used for sandwiches the following lunch.
The restaurant will run under a for-benefit business model, putting all profits back into the business and has five staff members and a team of volunteers who run the daily operations. Nearly all of those involved live within walking distance of the building.
“If the neighbourhood isn’t involved, they don’t own it,” Bowyer said, adding nearly 15 different community groups from the city have helped with the process.
Executive director Susan Carr will handle the human resources side of operations. James Peters will chair the steering committee and help with fundraising.
The building, which has been abandoned for about two decades, used to house a Bank of Montreal. “It just sort of represented a lot of places in Hamilton—neglect,” Bowyer said.
About 100 volunteers helped renovate the space, which includes exposed brick, hardwood floors and large windows that let in an abundance of light. A mishmash of wooden chairs, and a long pew make up the seating, with a long wooden table as the room’s centerpiece.
Bowyer said the restaurant’s first goal was to do 50 covers for breakfast and lunch and 30 covers for dinner. “We need that much revenue to put the money back in to feed families affordable meals at night,” he said. “And that’s worked for us.”
The restaurant offers three six-week courses in culinary, custodial and hospitality studies and will help train residents, write resumes and find permanent work. “All of us are good at something, the problem is sometimes we have to do things we aren’t good at,” Bowyer said.
Bowyer—who has a long resume of culinary experience and is also a minister with the Compass Point Bible Church—said he has travelled extensively to research ways to prepare fresh, sustainable local food.
The restaurant is applying for its charitable status and will also apply for a grant through the Ontario Trillium Foundation. Bowyer said a blank cheque isn’t necessarily the best way to go and that fundraising must involve the community in order to instill a sense of empowerment.
Currently, the 541 team is helping a group in Ottawa create a similar restaurant and have their sights set on other Hamilton locations. “The idea is we want to be able to do this in any community,” Bowyer said.
541 Eatery and Exchange, 541 Barton St. E., Hamilton, ON, (289) 389-0541, @541Barton.