Homegrown Business: Johanna Schwartz of Congress Coffee

Nestled in an underserved community of Calgary, Congress Coffee isn’t just a neighbourhood coffee house; it’s a cultural hub. Beyond serving up rich brews and treats, Congress Coffee doubles as an all-ages music venue, bringing the community together through the universal language of music. With a cozy atmosphere and a commitment to inclusivity, this coffee spot provides a welcoming space for both caffeine enthusiasts and music lovers alike. We spoke to Johanna Schwartz, owner of Congress Coffee, in order to find out more about her unique space.

Congress Coffee House

What is your business called and what does it do?

Congress Coffee is an independent coffee house and live performance venue.

What made you want to do this work?

After a 20-year career in nonprofit communications, I wanted to create a community-driven space with delicious, simply prepared coffee as the foundation.

What problem did you want to solve with the business?

There are a few solutions that Congress has offered up to the community:

Congress is in an under-served community, nestled in the heart of Greenview Industrial, so it provides a new neighbourhood coffee house and performance space for residents of Tuxedo Park, Highland Park and surrounding areas.

Calgary has a shortage of all-ages venues. Our non-licensed space means people of all ages can come to our shows. It also provides a welcome space for sober events.

We have put significant effort into the sound design of the space. Unlike many cafes that offer live music as an afterthought, our in-house acoustician and sound engineer has purpose-built the space to sound beautiful.

As a response to the ubiquity of pricey third-wave coffee shops, Congress strips it back to the basics, with dark roasted coffee prepared in classic formats, at a price point that is accessible to all (our drip coffee is pay-what-you-feel).

Who are your clientele/demographics?

We have a few different clientele/demographics:

Our day-to-day clientele are primarily residents of the surrounding communities: morning commuters grabbing a coffee on their way to work, afternoons meet-ups between seniors or young moms & babies, local teens hanging out playing Dungeons and Dragons.

We also serve the people who work within Greenview Industrial: mechanics, City of Calgary workers, and more, as well as their clientele. We have close relationships with the mechanics’ shops who are happy that there is a warm and welcoming space for their clients to be as they wait for their car repairs. We also share a similar symbiotic relationship with the Red Arrow bus station, which directs its passengers to us while they wait for the bus.

Finally, friends, fans and followers of the music and arts events that we program bring people from across the city to Congress for live shows on the weekends.

How does your business make money? How does it work?

We operate in the ways of a typical cafe with coffee and food sales (we offer an array of sandwiches plus soup, salad and sweet treats). We also roast coffee in-house in partnership with Anonymous Cupper and sell freshly roasted coffee beans by the pound. Additional revenue comes from live music events, though our business model provides 100% of door sales back to the artists. We also make the space available for private functions. In the new year we will be offering expanded retail sales, and additional opportunities with Anonymous Cupper, such as private roasting workshops.

Where in the city can we find your profession?

#1A 215 36 Ave NE

What is the best question a prospective customer could ask a member of your profession when comparing services? Give the answer as well.

This question assumes a more transactional relationship between our product and our customer, but I would rather focus on the experiential – comparing experiences rather than services.

Congress was built to be welcoming and inviting for people to meet for conversations. While we don’t stop people from using the space for 1-1 laptop time, the cafe is built to encourage a wider variety of activities. We have lots of ways to keep our younger customers busy (like Playdoh and Jenga), and the decor acts as conversation starters. Almost every item in the space has a story behind it. The feedback we receive from our customers is that they appreciate an alternative to the typical stark, cold cafe style, and love that we have a sense of humour in our eclectic design.

What is the best part about what you do? What is the worst part?

The best part is meeting all of my neighbours and learning their personal stories. Having a group of regulars who you get to know well is truly a blessing.

The hardest part is the long hours you put in as a new business owner, but I am still fuelled every day by the customers I serve, so that helps ease the tiredness.

What is your favourite joke about your own profession?

Not a joke per se, but we have a few sayings as part of our brand story, including “You won’t get a heart drawn on your latte but that doesn’t mean we don’t love you” and “Your lobster should be market price, not your coffee”.

Where can we follow you?

Facebook | Instagram

PAY IT FORWARD: What is another local business that you love?

I am going to share the Greenview love and shout out to Citizen Brewing Company – our neighbours and friends who have shown us great support and have been an inspiration for how to grow a business. We can only hope to be as stellar as they are 5 years from now.

 

 

 

About Emilea Semancik 82 Articles
Emilea Semancik was born in North Vancouver. Emilea has always always wanted to work as a freelance writer and currently writes for the Vancouver Guardian. Taking influence from journalism culture surrounding the great and late Anthony Bourdain, she is a recipe author working towards publishing her own series of books. You can find her food blog on Instagram: