Downtown scores two new businesses

Devil May Care Brewing opens dive-bar-style tap room; Cntrbnd opens high-end streetwear shop in True North Square


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As if trying to instantly shift the narrative about downtown being uninviting, two new establishments opened a few blocks from each other last week, injecting the kind of atmosphere every North American urban core desires.

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As if trying to instantly shift the narrative about downtown being uninviting, two new establishments opened a few blocks from each other last week, injecting the kind of atmosphere every North American urban core desires.

Devil May Care Brewery, which has been making its Starstuff American Pale Ale and about a dozen other beers since 2018, has opened its own tap room at Fort Street and York Avenue with a gritty, blue-collar vibe its owners Steve Gauthier and Colin Koop prefer.

And a few blocks away on the main floor of True North Square’s residential tower, the high-end streetwear store Cntrbnd (pronounced “Contraband”) quietly opened its fifth store in the country selling $700 T-shirts from exclusive streetwear brands, many from Asia and Europe, as well as Canada Goose — particularly its most exclusive items — and $280 Nike Jordan sneakers.

Maya Olynyk, who moved to Winnipeg from Montreal to open the store, said, “We are definitely not a volume, fast-fashion place. We’re here for that one special piece.”

The 10-year-old retailer, whose main store is in Toronto’s exclusive Yorkville district, is the original tenant in the high traffic location with a building full of potential customers right above it.

“We definitely think we’re in the right district for our clientele,” Olynyk said.

Despite the fact she’s already had a run-in with a potential burglar, she’s not concerned. The store has a minimalist design and product selection on hand would be characterized as the opposite of “stuffed to the rafters”.

Whereas Cntrbnd is betting style-conscious Winnipeggers will appreciate the exclusivity and not balk at the price points — everything is on sale right now! — Devil May Care is all about the community feel.

After successfully producing a few beers that are considered among the best in Winnipeg, the two partners — who only quit their day jobs three years ago — will continue to use the brewing, packaging and delivery services at Torque Brewing for their main commercial titles and have installed about a half dozen small-batch tanks in the back of the tap room for their downtown patrons.

Gauthier said with a laugh that opening the operation was “what we like to think of as a carefully considered risk.”

But with a nice big crowd on opening night, the Friday night before Christmas, the partners were humbled at the sizable following it was not even aware was out there.

“The idea here is to do much smaller batches, 500 to 1,000 litres at a time,” Gauthier said. “It allows us to be a little more creative and do some more crazy stuff. We’re a couple of old-school home brewers who like to play around.”

The location is coincidentally next door to the one it looked at five years earlier.

The 3,000-square-foot room with windows covering one side has the feel of an old time beer hall.

“We’re not fancy people,” he said.

But they are conscientious and thoughtful about the fate of downtown Winnipeg and wanted to play a role in shifting the dynamic.

“Overall, we’re hoping to help start the revitalization of the area to some degree,” Gauthier said. “We realize downtown is not without its issues. Sitting at home complaining about it doesn’t really solve anything for anyone.”

Located down the street from the Pyramid and around the corner from Times Changed, the taproom features a large tattoo artist’s mural on one wall and the original concrete floor, cracks and all.

“We think it’s a good neighbourhood, exactly what our brand is about,” said Koop. “It’s got a gritty, downtown feel. The graffiti wall reminds people of that. We love dive bars and all those awesome places that people go to listen to music and drink good beer.”

And what city that calls itself a city doesn’t need to have a few of those kinds of hangouts?

Devil May Care started by partnering with Stone Angel Brewing Co., then switched to Torque at the start of the pandemic for volume and economic reasons.

Gauthier said the craft brewing community in Winnipeg — whose numbers are still fewer per capita than in most other cities — is supportive and friendly and they were able to get advice and guidance from them through their one-year-plus renovation experience.

“Initially we thought we would be open in the spring of this year, but we could not have been more wrong,” said Koop. “I think the city really struggles with the concept of breweries and what exactly the regulations are.”

Meanwhile uptown at Cntrbnd, Olynyk is happy to be the first occupant in a 1,200-square-foot space with an industrial feel featuring very reasonable rent.

The new store puts the brand in a fourth city, with outlets in Montreal, Vancouver and two in Toronto. After a year or so Olynyk figures she’ll be off to open stores in Calgary and Edmonton and then break into the U.S. market in Los Angeles and Dallas.

With Cntrbnd, Winnipeggers will be in the unusual situation of having bragging rights to be one of the first in on an exclusive retail brand.

Martin Cash

Martin Cash

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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