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Rural Ontario restaurant pays it forward with meal donation program

By By J.P. Antonacci, The Hamilton Spectator   

Features Business and Operations Community involvment

Simcoe, Ont. – A chance encounter with a hungry resident inspired Kaley Horton to create the Kaley’s Pay it Forward program through her restaurant.

Kaley Horton was on her way to work after dropping her daughter off at school when she saw a man rooting through a garbage can near her restaurant in downtown Simcoe.

Horton watched as the man pulled out a plastic container and examined the remnants of a roasted chicken, seeming to decide after a few moments that it looked good enough to eat.

She stopped the car.

“I said, ‘Walk in the front door of my restaurant, I’m going to feed you,’” Horton recalled.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry you saw me do that.’ And I said, ‘If you’re hungry, come and see me.’”

Soon the man was on his way with a cup of hot coffee, an omelette and toast.

It was that encounter one morning last November that inspired Horton to create the Kaley’s Pay it Forward program. The premise is simple: on a bulletin board just inside the front doors of Kaley’s Restaurant on Robinson Street are coupons that can be redeemed for a free drink, two-egg breakfast or soup-and-sandwich lunch.

“I’m not making a million dollars in this business, but I also don’t want to ever see anybody hungry,” Horton said.

Kaley Horton stands by the bulletin board inside the front door of Kaley’s Restaurant in downtown Simcoe, where patrons can help themselves to a coupon to be redeemed for a donated meal through the restaurant’s pay-it-forward program. -J.P. Antonacci/The Hamilton Spectator

The program is entirely dependant on community contributions and Kaley’s customers and the general public have responded enthusiastically, with more than $3,000 in donations collected since the launch in February.

“We have some people who’ll come in for lunch and double their bill, and donate it to the program,” Horton said, adding that patrons often round up their total and contribute the difference.

Donations can be made in any amount and are converted into coupons worth $2, $5 and $10.

Grateful residents started to redeem those coupons as word of the program spread around town, including at a nearby methadone clinic, the Salvation Army and the local Ontario Disability Support Program office.

“Those are people that are definitely in need,” Horton said, adding she and her staff have seen “quite an increase in usage” in recent months as more residents feel the financial pinch.
At first, most people took their donated meals to go, Horton said. But more are opting to dine in.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people who are down and out don’t want to be seen,” she said.

“But we wanted them to feel comfortable enough that they could come in and sit beside somebody who might have a million-dollar bank account.”

The free meal program is similar to the long-running button jar at 541 Eatery and Exchange in Hamilton.

Since 2014, the not-for-profit restaurant on Barton Street East has served residents in need who pay using buttons — each worth a dollar — donated by other patrons.

The focus is on kindness and “showing no judgment when people come in,” Horton said.

“The program is certainly not just for the homeless or unfortunate. It’s for anybody.”

That includes people who forgot their wallet, kids on their way to school who didn’t pack a lunch, or seniors who are trying to make ends meet and are in need of a hot meal.

“This is facilitated by us, but it is possible because of the community,” Horton said.

J.P. Antonacci is Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for The Hamilton Spectator.

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