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Mark Brand says he put $1-million of his own money into restoring the heritage building that houses Save On Meats in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

When pigs fly. It's one of those phrases with buried meaning. It generally conveys hyperbole, indicating something both extreme and unlikely to happen, which is probably why Mark Brand, a popular Vancouver restaurateur, has chosen the image of a flying pig for his brand. He's a guy making the impossible happen.

The 37-year-old social entrepreneur is the force behind Save On Meats, a restaurant and butcher shop in Vancouver's bedraggled Downtown Eastside, which is committed to feeding, training and employing the neighbourhood's most marginalized poor.

Brand calls them "barrier employees" because they have obstacles that tend to make them unemployable, perpetuating their lowly status within Canadian society. His goal is to break that cycle.

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His customers, as well as about 20 per cent of his staff, are drug addicts and welfare recipients, mental health outpatients and ex-cons.

But Brand sees them as people first.

"They are human beings just looking for a nutritious meal or someone to give them a leg up," says the native of Scotland, who moved to Canada when he was 5, arriving with mother Boneta and his father, an oil industry expert. "Canadians will usually give charity to those in need overseas, but will ignore the people in their own backyards. It's infuriating."

But instead of staying mad, Brand, owner of 11 other Vancouver businesses in the food and beverage industry (including his first Gastown restaurant, named after his mother), is putting his money where his mouth is.

Since taking over Save On Meats in 2011, which has operated on West Hastings Street since 1957, he has put more than $1-million of his own money into restoring the 21,000-square-foot heritage building, adding a sandwich counter with a meal token program aimed at the less fortunate.

Meal tokens cost $2.25 each, and can be redeemed for a hot sandwich. Eighty tokens are redeemed a day for an annual total of 30,000 mouths fed.

Still, the concept is controversial. Brand's critics accuse him of profiting from the poor while his supporters understand he's just trying to make a difference, one beleaguered neighbourhood at a time.

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"It's a blueprint for change which can expand nationally and internationally," exclaims Brand. Or as far as the pig will fly.

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