Downtown alleys aren’t typically where you want to hang out with friends, but local restauranteur Cam Dobranski is changing that. Owner of Brasserie and Winebar in Kensington, Dobranski has transformed the alley beside his businesses into Container Bar, a repurposed shipping container that’s now a quirky outdoor bar.
“It’s a fully recycled, cool little beautified alley that normally wouldn’t have been used,” Dobranski says. “Now it’s become kind of a phenomenon.”
The bar’s furniture is made from recycled materials, with tables built from repurposed wood palettes and church pews and old school chairs for seating.
Taking notes from the “Portland book,” the bar features a sidewalk piano — painted in the style of Van Gogh’s Starry Night — that passersby can stop and play. The music in the bar is patron curated with a communal record player and a BYOV (Bring Your Own Vinyl) policy.
“The Animals always show up. Elvis, The Beatles, all the more nostalgic stuff,” Dobranski adds. “But then we play punk rock too — from Ramones to Misfits to The Strokes.”
This interactive approach is designed to bring a diverse crowd to the bar and create a sense of community, says Dobranski, adding that the clientele is not restricted to the young and hip crowd.
“You get guys in suits, to hipsters, to university students, to families — everybody’s coming in,” Dobranski says. “It creates a culture and gives the city a cool vibe. When people get off the plane from whatever city they’re travelling from, they’ll probably hear about Container Bar and want to go there.”
While there isn’t a kitchen in the container, patrons can eat from a paired-down version of Brasserie’s menu, which is run over from the restaurant.
As a bar, the focus is on quality drinks. The drink menu features local and craft beers and “cheaper than coffee” cognac. Inspired by the popularity of gin and tonic bars in Spain, there’s a dedicated gin and tonic section where small-production gins are carefully paired with specific tonics.
“We’re trying to make the underdog drinks cool again,” Dobranski says.
The idea for Container Bar started when Dobranski wanted to expand his businesses and incorporate a patio, but space limitations forced him to “think outside the box.”
The alleyway solution was inspired by manager Matt Leslie’s travels in Australia, where container bars are common. However, as the first bar of its kind in Calgary, a lot of bureaucracy stood in Dobranski’s way.
“Two years ago they outright said no,” Dobranski says. “I stuck it out and the BRZ [Kensington Business Revitalization Zone] was really behind us. I kept calling the city every day. The mayor tweeted me and said ‘what can we do to help you guys?’ Then the mayor got involved, pushed it forward and now it’s Container Bar.”
Dobranski says he hopes his experience makes it easier for Calgary’s entrepreneurs to open non-traditional restaurant spaces. These spaces, he says, enhance local neighbourhoods and encourage a creative and vibrant community.
“I’m actually going to city hall with the president of the BRZ to tell them to cut the red tape and explain how important these things are for our economy and our neighbourhoods,” he says. “I’m actually paying more taxes and I’m creating more economy. I’m hiring more people when normally I have to lay people off in the summer. So it’s like win-win for the community, the employees and myself.”