Johanna Schwartz, proprietor`

A coffee house that aims to be truly representative

A visit to Congress Coffee might trigger memories of those bygone days when hearing snippets about underground events on Calgary’s underground Radio Radio — or the old CJSW when it was still on cable — started your quest to show up somewhere on a frigid night that made you question if you should have been out on the icy roads, only to hear a resounding “Yes!” in your heart when you arrived and realized you found “your people.”

The bathroom walls feature posters from, well, Radio Radio (an independent Calgary station run from a small space off Stephen Avenue in the 1980s and 90s), long gone music venues including Night Gallery, Republik, and others. A cabinet that serves as a micro museum curated by Calgary music historian Arif Ansari of Calgary Cassette Preservation Society features tributes to Calgary bands, musicians, and influencers. And the inclusive community vibe is exemplified by things like Pay What You Feel drip coffee. Clearly, Congress is all about bringing people together over coffee and arts, not bringing people in, grabbing their cash, and sending them on their way.

Proprietor Johanna Schwartz mined her three-decade-long dreams and her copious experience working with arts based not-for-profits in opening Congress in February 2023. 

“I always had the idea that I would like to do something independent…There was always an itch to do something creative and community driven,” says Schwartz.

Schwartz had watched her mother, “a scrappy entrepreneur” found Fat Franks on 4th Street in her later life, and her mom’s passing left her with the means to bring her own long-simmering dream to a boil.

“It really just became I am going to make a coffee space in my neighbourhood that is community focused, is going to have live music, and it is going to be a call back or a remembrance or an homage to these pre-internet coffee houses that I remember so well,” Schwartz says. “I wanted it to feel like when I opened the doors that it has been there for 30 years and just no one has heard of it before.”

She found the space owned by her now-landlord Doug Wong, who founded Sundae Sound Studio in the area in 1980 and ran Canada Disc and Tape. “He was such a seminal person in that time,” notes Schwartz. 

In fact, Ansari created a Congress cabinet display with newspaper clippings, cassettes and CDs connected to Wong. “I showed it to him and he was pretty chuffed to see it,” Schwartz says.

She created the space in contrast to “that ubiquity of clinical sort of design in Calgary, kind of corporate feeling spaces. I think there are some generations who don’t know any different. They don’t know there could be different kinds of places to be, so the response has been amazing from totally different age groups.”

And people of all ages have enjoyed offerings of punk, country, jazz, goth, electronica and industrial music as well as comedy, drag, and burlesque shows and readings of plays. A thoughtfully created first anniversary playlist, featuring over 90 tracks, is intriguing enough to be your spring soundtrack, showcasing Schwartz’s community vision in full bloom. 

Much like the cafe itself, that playlist is populated by familiar names like Lorrie Matheson, Nico Brennan, Forbidden Dimension and Tom Phillips but also highlights hidden gems like Zachari Smith, Nathaniel Sutton, and the soon to be much more familiar Jolene Marie. 

“People come into the space, they see that it’s been purpose-built for creativity and performance — which is intriguing for a coffee shop — and say, ‘I think I’d like to do something here.’ And we say, ‘Fabulous! How about next Wednesday?

Artists can DM Congress on Instagram to book a night, set their cover charge and show up with family and friends to the 30 to 40 seat space, then walk away with 100 per cent of the proceeds. “Every one of those bands has their own community. Congress is a blank slate of who is welcome there. You bring your people, and we say hi.”

The same is true for exhibits by visual artists. “My purpose is to provide the space to let artists use it in a way they see fit. And to bring things to the north side of Calgary outside of the Beltline in an area where there should be some more culture outside of the inner city.”

With such a focus on the arts, don’t assume that the food and drink has gotten short shrift.

The venue also features refreshingly reasonable prices on food like turkey or roast beef sandwiches, Greek salad, a “brekky burrito” and all manner of coffee-based drinks, tea, hot chocolate, and lemonade. 

When Schwartz started Congress, she spoke with Shawn McDonald, who ran Planet Coffee when she worked there in the 90s. He came onboard, bringing three decades of knowledge to create a dark roast sourced from a family he knows in Chiapas. The product is so in demand that people from Vivo Wellness Centre reached out to request Congress provide coffee, tea and cold drinks in the arena lobby. The collaboration is now called Drip powered by Congress and opened last month.

The lower prices are by design. “That’s really important to me. I joke that I’m pretty bad at capitalism. But there’s also no real need to be so weird with pricing….That kind of keeping up with the Joneses mentality that we have in this city has just escalated things to inaccessibility for so many people. That’s the major reason we do Pay What You Feel coffee. That’s an equitable access point for people to come and spend time at Congress.”

Being unlicensed is another matter of design. “We hope to be a kind of incubator space, and are unlicensed intentionally. It’s simple business for us, but the idea that you could just drop off your 12-year-old to go to an all-ages punk show, [when] you know what the vibe is going to be without adding liquor into the mix, makes it a nice safe line for everybody.”

Find Congress Coffee Company at 1A 215 36 Ave NE and online at congresscoffeeyyc.com.