Written By: Elise Arsenault
Photos: Colin Andrew Visuals
“Did you say battle of the—buttons?”
Yeah, buttons. If you’re envisioning an arena of competitors in loose cardigans and business shirts, poised to button up at record speed before the buzzer sounds, I’m sorry to disappoint you.
The first annual Battle of the Buttons, held at Redeemer University College in Ancaster on January 13th, instead saw young musicians raising funds for a local initiative called 541 Eatery & Exchange. Performers ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-three, and in genre from alt-rock to soulful jazz, brought the house down with sharp skills and like minds: entering friendly competition in support of a worthwhile cause.
Stay with me. A button jar on the counter of 541 is one of the things that sets the café apart from others on the downtown scene. “It’s a pay-it-forward program,” explains volunteer Nina Drenth, “where individuals who have a little extra change can buy buttons, so that people who might not have the funds that day can use buttons to pay for their meal. It’s a beautiful opportunity for both parties to give and receive.”
In support of this system, Redeemer’s events coordinator Micah van Dijk adopted buttons as the voting currency for the competition. Listeners voted for an act by buying a button for a dollar and dropping it into the jar with their favourite band’s name on it. This approach veers from those of past concerts he’s planned, and reasons for the change have to do with students’ growing hearts for the city of Hamilton.
“I started to see that student musicians were becoming more interested in being involved in an event that had some sort of social cause attached to it,” explains Micah, “I decided to combine the fundraising concert concept with a Battle of the Bands concept. I felt there would be good synergy.”
This non-profit organization was chosen because of the tangibility of its cause, Micah adds. “I think people would have given less money if the fundraiser was going to a big NGO. Students are very interested in tangible causes that can have an immediate impact.”
The extent of this interest surpassed his expectations. Nearly 250 buttons were initially available for purchase, and each of them sold before the bands’ setlists were through. “Fortunately,” he assures us, “I had a bunch of back-up buttons with me so that we could meet the demand!” Over $450 were raised in total, bought by nearly 150 attendees.
And since every button went straight to the big jar on 541’s counter, we can be sure the funds are already turning into pulled pork sandwiches, curried leek and potato soup, buttermilk pancakes and more tasty goods in the hands of Hamiltonians and visitors in Barton Village.
Such menu options are proof of 541’s commitment to “providing food that is affordable, nutritious, and family friendly,” as put in their mission statement. Each meal is made in-house with care and fresh ingredients—some pulled right from the soil in their backyard community garden, or from their partner farm, Arocha Ontario. The prices of weekday menu items average at $4, which, paired with the button jar phenomenon, open the door to anyone craving a wholesome, home-cooked meal.
Coffee is supplied by Detour Coffee Roasters, a local bunch known for “roasting and brewing with sustainable practices, using a combination of direct trade and importers, and the greenest kind of roaster on the planet” as put by one impressed Torontonian blogger. Detour has also run its own fundraising initiatives for the eatery; a dollar from every bag of their Holiday Blend sold last November went to the button jar too.
The visionaries at 541 are interested in the wholistic wellbeing of those they serve. That’s why they encourage customers to take turns behind the counter. “People on the margins are brought into the centre of everything we do,” their website says before listing educational community initiatives run for free. Included among them are kitchen and barista skills training, music lessons, homework help, and health workshops.
“Some people say they want to get a job at Starbucks or MacDonald’s,” says past staff member and Redeemer alumni Sam Kamminga, “but they aren’t in a place where they’re given a chance.” Volunteering in the kitchen can provide them with the expertise and experience to pursue those next steps.
“We learn from them too,” he adds. “We want everyone to have the opportunity to receive from us, but also to be able to give back and be a part of what we’re doing; everyone has something to contribute.”
This vision is only gaining momentum.
The organization recently announced the next phase of their mission to “address the needs of our neighbourhood in tangible ways,” in their hope to launch a community kitchen down the street at Campus 621—a collaborative space where a handful of non-profits already gather to foster renewal in the city and around the globe. The space will be perfect for providing free cooking classes and laundry facilities for the community, further decreasing food insecurity and other neighbourhood hardships.
It all starts with stopping by. Step inside their bright, open building—originally built as a bank in 1907—anytime from 7am-7pm Monday to Friday (or 7am-4pm Saturday) at 541 Barton St. East. Grab a cup’a coffee for a dollar, a button for a dollar more, sit down at the ash wood harvest table in the middle of the room, and strike up a conversation with a businesswoman, a single parent, a monk, a student, or anyone else among the smorgasbord of folks who frequent 541.
“Nowhere else in the city do you get that,” says Sam. “No where else have I seen such a diverse group of people sit at the same table. Some are really well-off, some not-so well-off, and some are from Ancaster, others from downtown. They’re all having different days, and yet they’re eating the same food here, together.”
I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better example of the unity that makes this city so remarkable, and so resilient.
Battle of the Buttons