Hamilton’s Barton Street area is often referred to as a “red zone” by city authorities, community groups and press because of the prevalence of homelessness, high number of residents living below the poverty line and reported crime rates surpassing those of any other neighbourhood in the city.

But things are changing. And 541 Exchange and Eatery on Barton Street is part of this change, providing an accessible, affordable and sustainable café with an ethos rooted in community cohesion. The space is open and bright with communal tables and things to read scattered around.

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The idea of a community café is one of the oldest business models, but no two are alike. Each caters to the needs of their local area in a unique way, feeding and fostering the community. For example, London’s Nana café addresses social isolation through crafting with its community of elderly. L’Arche Tova café in Winnipeg helps people with disabilities gain meaningful employment and increased social interactions. 541 do this through a button exchange to tackle poverty. When you purchase a meal at the café you have the option of buying a button (or several) for $1. These buttons are effectively credits for meals. Anyone can come in off the street and use these button credits towards food. Not only is this dignified, it’s a leveller.

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It’s easy to be critical of honour systems and assume that over time people could abuse this setup. However, the amount of goodwill and generosity evident at 541 makes you feel like the ingenuity that helped build the business will help them innovate as they grow.

If you’re local to Hamilton, go for a bite to eat. If you’re not, you can support them and follow their progress online.