Brewed Attitude: Jessie Wilkin talks Toronto's coffee scene

Pilot Coffee’s co-founder Jessie Wilkin celebrates how much Toronto’s coffee culture has grown in a decade.

Jessie Wilkin Pilot Coffee Roasters

Jessie Wilkin, co-founder of Pilot Coffee Roasters.

On then and now

When we opened our first coffee shop Te Aro in Leslieville, Toronto was still getting used to the idea of really good coffee. At least that’s my humble impression. Even if you put aside the coffee chains that have dominated the Canadian landscape for decades, it just didn’t seem like there was any movement or interest in things like direct trade, specialty coffee beans or other forms of coffee drinking. But we knew that we were onto something because the crowd followed us very quickly. This momentum is what helped us grow very quickly. For Pilot, it was all about timing and treating customers with respect while really trying to push the envelope.

On piloting the way

When we saw the reaction to specialty coffee, we had a hard time keeping up with the demand. We opened a second location in the city’s west end a few years later. Within four years we rebranded to become Pilot Coffee Roasters. Te Aro is a special place, it’s our first baby, so we kept it the way it is, but all of our new locations adopted the signature new look, the yellow aesthetics and the wood highlights. We also had to move our micro-roasting operations out of Te Aro to a new production facility in the east end on Wagstaff Drive. Toronto’s coffee scene was growing by leaps and bounds and we were trying to keep up with it.

On the secret to success

I honestly believe the key to our success has been our dedication to the core ethos. We started in this business believing that how we source our product, fair wages and transparency are critical to our core values. We’ve stuck to that while growing, which definitely is no easy feat.

On Toronto’s modern palate

It’s hard to classify what the modern Toronto coffee palate is but I can say that it's equal parts educated and curious. We find that consumers are driving a lot of the conversation about what they want to see with Pilot, whether it’s where we are sourcing our beans from or new products, like cold brew. The industry, coffee professionals and baristas are also the ambassadors for Toronto coffee culture and we try to learn from them. It is really impressive and exciting how far we’ve come in a short amount of time. Today there’s great coffee to be had in nearly every corner of the city. Back then, a niche crowd took interest in specialty coffee, but now you can say most people in the city appreciate it.

On the future

We’re finding that there’s more interest in portable coffee products like the canned cold brew coffee and latte products we create. It gives the drinker the chance to have that café experience at home. Recently, we launched the single-serve coffee product, which resembles a tea bag and allows you to enjoy great coffee when you’re travelling. It’s convenience without sacrificing any quality in your cup. I think it’s easy to assume that steeped coffee is always bad. Our challenge has been to prove otherwise.