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“We need to meet new customers where they are” – Pilot Coffee Roasters CEO, Bruce Miller

Founded in 2009, Pilot Coffee Roasters is an 11-store specialty café chain and roastery based in Toronto. CEO Bruce Miller speaks to World Coffee Portal about bringing specialty coffee to new audiences, taking the café experience home and opportunities for growth following the acquisition of Bridgehead Coffee

Pilot Coffee Roasters CEO Bruce Miller (left) and the chain’s Bay Adelaide Centre store in Toronto (right) | Photo credits: Pilot Coffee Roasters


How did you get into coffee and find new opportunities at Pilot Coffee Roasters? 

For the past three years I have worked closely alongside co-founders Jessie Holmes and Andy Wilkin to help realise Pilot Coffee Roasters’ unwavering mission: roast great coffee and work with great people to do it. I’ve spent my entire career in hospitality and remain a board member at Restaurants Canada.  

When the opportunity came to join Pilot Coffee Roasters in 2021, I was immediately impressed with their exceptional quality, but perhaps more importantly, their values and vision for the future. I’m taking my learnings from turning local businesses into national treasures, and that’s what our team here is focused on. We’re growing our national footprint, expanding café operations and entering new, innovative channels to reach more coffee appreciators. 

Which sales channels are currently your strongest performing and how do you develop business synergies between these segments? 

Historically there was a relatively even split across café, wholesale, and online channels. More recently we’ve seen exciting growth in our CPG channel with over 500 grocer listings across Canada. This has proven to be a great vehicle for awareness for our signature blends which is our most popular product line. 

E-commerce has also helped develop our national profile and we plan to invest further with the launch of a new website later this year. It’s important that our commitment to quality remains clear, that’s what our customers expect no matter where or how they shop. 

“We need to meet new customers where they are, which is outside of conventional specialty circles”

In a coffee shop market led by large branded chains, particularly Tim Hortons, how are you engaging with new specialty coffee audiences? 

Specialty coffee has never been more present in the mainstream than it is today. With the rising popularity comes the challenge to communicate more than just great tasting coffee. Consumers are looking for stories to share, inspiration, and authenticity.  

But we also need to meet new customers where they are, which is outside of conventional specialty circles. Whether that be in their local grocery store, or through partnerships with like-minded lifestyle brands – there are a lot of coffee drinkers out there just waiting for an introduction. 

How has consumer footfall and coffee consumption shifted in Canada’s post-pandemic market and how has Pilot Coffee Roasters adapted to these changes? 

It’s no surprise that the past few years have been a challenge for the hospitality industry. Especially in city centres where office culture has changed. We’ve been very fortunate to have a loyal customer base and even with less days in the office, we’re seeing a strong café presence when they are in the neighbourhood.  

It’s also been an opportunity to add more value with existing customers and focus on our retail beans. More café customers are brewing at home and our baristas are well versed in our entire offering. They’ll offer to pre-grind beans and personalise service to create the best experience possible. We’re also really diving into the data so we can better service our diverse group of customers. It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach. 

A range of Pilot Coffee Roasters’ packaged retail coffee | Photo credit: Pilot Coffee Roasters

In January 2024, Pilot Coffee Roasters agreed to acquire Bridgehead Coffee from Aegis Brands. What attracted you to Bridgehead Coffee and what will the deal enable Pilot to achieve? 

We’ve always admired Bridgehead Coffee as a legacy coffee brand and for our similar values, including a focus on building community. Through this acquisition, the shared resources and learnings will only strengthen both roasters, but they will continue to operate separately. 

Bridgehead has over 40 years' experience being champions of fair trade and stewards of the environment. This acquisition will ensure that legacy lives on and thrives in the future. 

How does Pilot Coffee Roasters manage its direct trade and ethical coffee sourcing programme?

Our coffee programme is largely direct trade and all coffees we source meet our standards within four pillars: quality, sustainability, environmental and social impact. Our direct trade philosophy makes it much easier to guarantee these standards are met by visiting partners regularly and having bilateral transparency. It creates a culture of trust and ability to share more information with customers.  

The challenges for coffee farmers today vary by region, but the overarching challenges we hear are related to climate change, labour shortages, and the rising cost of production. For us, communication is key to ensuring the success of our partners so we can be proactive and supportive. 

2024 marks Pilot Coffee Roasters’ 15th anniversary. Will you be marking this milestone and what is the long-term vision for the brand? 

The short answer is yes! We are very honoured to celebrate our 15th year of roasting great coffee with great people. It’s a testament to our incredible customers, team, and long-standing coffee partners who have set the roastery up for success. We can’t give too much away, but we have a lot planned for our birthday month of May and beyond. This anniversary has given us the opportunity to think big about what the next 15 years may bring, and that will be reflected in our celebration. There is lots more to come. 

Bruce Miller is CEO of Pilot Coffee Roasters.

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