Why Casey House Turned June’s Pop-Up Eatery Into a Documentary


Casey House June's documentary poster

Back in November, Casey House, Canada’s first and only standalone hospital for people living with HIV/AIDS, opened a pop-up restaurant in Toronto run by HIV-positive chefs​. It was called June’s in honor of founder June Callwood, the pioneering journalist and activist whose many philanthropic interests led her to open a groundbreaking care facility at a time when there were fears, misconceptions and a lack of general support for people with HIV/AIDS, with the medical crisis dismissed as something for the gay community to deal with.

Casey House June's documentary poster

Last fall’s pop-up restaurant showed how far things have come since 1988, when Casey House, named for Callwood’s son (who was 20 when he was killed by a drunk driver while riding his motorcycle), sold out each night and helped raise funds, as well as fight the stigma of living with HIV/AIDS. June’s HIV+ Eatery was launched in partnership with Toronto chef Matt Basile (of Fidel Gastro’s) who trained the 14 HIV+ patients-turned-cooks, most of whom had no previous kitchen experience. The pop-up was covered around the world, including by The Guardian, People, NPR and The Huffington Post.

Together, they served 300 diners over three days, a journey chronicled in a moving documentary film called June’s. Created in partnership ​with Academy Award-nominated director Hubert Davis, the short film had its premiere last night in Toronto, with a panel after discussing the #SmashStigma campaign. The film has been picked up by HBO Canada and will be entered into festivals worldwide to help continue spreading awareness.

The project is a testament to the three decades of service that Casey House, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, has offered since opening its doors, helping to change the perception of people with HIV/AIDS as the first standalone HIV/AIDS hospice in Canada, offering palliative care to patients and support for their loved ones.

That pioneering and compassionate spirit is still called upon daily at Casey House, which has evolved into a HIV/AIDS specialty hospital with community outreach programs. It has earned international recognition for the highly-developed expertise of its remarkable staff and volunteers in caring for people affected by this complex and difficult disease, whether on its premises, in patients’ homes or even on the street.

Extending its pop-up activation with a documentary short is not only savvy event- and content marketing but engaging brand storytelling. The Casey House story today: Thanks to treatment advances, clients are experiencing improvements in their overall health and quality of life. But there is no cure, and every two hours, Casey House says, another Canadian is diagnosed with HIV. So its mission continues: “to provide exemplary treatment, support and palliative care for people living with HIV/AIDS.”

The “Break Bread Smash Stigma” campaign and restaurant launched a movement and ignited a global conversation about the miseducation and stigma that still exists around HIV/AIDs. This documentary is an intimate look at the cooks and how participating in this initiative changed their lives. Each chef has a unique and personal story that reveals their humanity and sheds light on the realities of the impact of peoples’ perceptions of those living with HIV/AIDs.

Some comments from Joseph Bonnici, Executive Creative Director at Bensimon Byrne, the agency partner on the project:

People have so many misconceptions about those who are HIV+. It’s also a disease that still comes with blame. When someone reveals their diagnosis, all sorts of questions come up that would never happen with other diseases like cancer. Questions like, ‘Are they a drug addict?’ or ‘Are they promiscuous?’ As you can tell from the documentary, each of our chefs has a unique story to tell. This disease crosses age, sex, ethnicity, and race. We think sharing their different stories will help people come to a better understanding of HIV.

The team is all set for dinner service number two tonight!

A post shared by Casey House (@caseyhouseto) on

Starting off this way was very purposeful. Food is intensely personal. It’s also something that provokes conversation, particularly in the context of the family-style meal our chefs served. Establishing this as a family-style meal, where people could openly talk, share and break bread, seemed like a fitting way to begin telling the stories of our brave chefs.

The doc acts as a way for people to almost sit down with the chefs and enjoy a meal with them; break bread and understand them in a deeply personal way. It was incredibly important to tell the personal stories of as many of the chefs as we could,because if people knew them, it would be impossible to stigmatize them. They have all been through so much and yet come out on the other side even stronger—so strong that they were willing to expose themselves to the type of cowardly ignorance that does so much damage online.

This entire campaign was designed to draw out ignorance and stigma online, so that we could educate. Remember, this is an issue people have stopped talking about. On one hand we saw the worst of humanity with thousands of negative comments. But this actually allowed us to educate by jumping into the conversation with the facts. We had 24/7 community moderation for four weeks.

On the other hand, we witnessed the best of humanity; by the time we had jumped in with the facts, we often saw that the person’s own social network had pounced on the stigma and called that person out. It was so reassuring. In total, we educated 730,000 Canadians directly on social.


June’s: An HIV+ Eatery

Client: Casey House
Chief Executive Officer: Joanne Simons

Agency: Bensimon Byrne/Narrative/OneMethod
Executive Creative Director: Joseph Bonnici
Creative Directors: Gints Bruveris, Meredith Klapowich, David Mueller, Laura Serra
Executive Producer: Michelle Pilling
Project Manager: Ashley Belfast
Production Coordinator: Daniel Rankin
Camera: Julian Peter
Second Unit Camera: Lulu Wei
Second Unit Producer: Caroline Clarke, Katie Link
Strategist: Aurora Stewart de Peña

Director: Hubert Davis
Production Company: Untitled Films
Director of Photography: Jesse Louttit, Chris Romeike
Executive Producers: Tom Evelyn, Jason Friedman
Assistant Camera: Alex Bros, Alex Dametto, Raj Nandy
Sound: Sanjay Mehta, Dave Dunlap, Mike Filippov
Production Assistant: Michael Mandarano

Editor: Michelle Czukar
Editorial Company: Rooster Post
Executive Producer, Offline: Melissa Kahn
Assistant Editor: Mikaela Bodin
Post Production Intern: Sarah Carlisle

Online and Visual Effects: Fort York VFX
Flame Artist: James Marin
Executive Producer, Online: Sam Mclaren
Producer, Online: Armen Bunag

Post Production: Alter Ego Post
Colour Artist: Eric Whipp
Producer, Colour: Jane Garrah
Colour Assistant: Mariya Guzova

Music and Sound Design: Berkeley
Audio Director: Jared Kuemper
Engineers/Editors: Jack Emblem, Tyler Young

Music By: Sizzer Amsterdam
Music Producer: Kenma Shindo
Music Supervisor: Niall Rogers

Head Chef: Matt Basile
Chefs: Kerrigan Beaver-Johnson, Guy Bethell, Louise Binder, Allan Carpenter, Muluba Habanyama, Christian Hui, Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco, Carlos Idibouo, Mikiki, Kenneth Poon, Greg Robinson, Ron Rosenes, Trevor Stratton, James Watson