By: Alex Liu

A new eatery on Barton Street is taking a unique approach to the restaurant business. 541 Eatery & Exchange, a registered charity, offers no meal priced above $5.00 and is staffed by 80% volunteers.

The restaurant, which opened in June, also serves as a safe space where people can meet to connect with each other and the community.

“We’re more than an eatery,” said Michael Bowyer, co-founder of 541 Eatery & Exchange. “We’re an exchange of ideas to empower people in the neighborhood.”

In a neighborhood without many alternatives other than fast food, 541 is a refreshing and welcome change, with over 360 customers served per day.

It took Bowyer’s team six years of planning and work to transform the idea behind the social enterprise into a reality. The eatery and exchange is now a sustainable not-for-profit business, buoyed by their pay-it-forward button bank system. At 541, these buttons are a form of currency, each valued at $1, which can be purchased from the cashiers and used by those who cannot afford food or drink.

“I love the concept of the things that they do here. If I don’t have money I can come in and take up to four buttons and get myself something to eat. When I do have money, I like to be able to hand that in and donate,” said Phil, a local resident and regular customer of 541.  “This has been an uplift for the neighborhood. I wish that there was a little bit of this everywhere.”

541, as a registered charity, is also using its space as well as the proceeds from food sales to hold educational initiatives for the community. 541 manager Miranda Crockett explained that a homework club, health classes for mothers, and financial planning workshops are currently being developed. All of these initiatives are open to the public, regardless of people’s background.

For their volunteers, many of whom are regular customers, 541 also offers resume-building opportunities, comprising of culinary, custodial, and hospitality skills training.

Bowyer and his team believe that what they have done at 541 is a reproducible model, which they will share and facilitate with others.

“Organizations are realizing that we can do a for-benefit business, and make it sustainable. It’s working.”

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