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Pilot Coffee Roasters café

Pilot Coffee Roasters café

Williamson Williamson Inc.
Toronto, ON, Canada | View Map

Scott Norsworthy

Innovation Through Design - The Symbiotic Link Between Branding and Architecture

Williamson Williamson Inc. as Architects

The new Pilot Coffee Roasters café in downtown Toronto’s Manulife Centre

Williamson Williamson Inc., a firm specializing in custom residential and commercial architecture, is proud to celebrate the opening of a new Pilot Coffee Roasters café in downtown Toronto’s Manulife Centre this fall, marking the firm’s 10th collaboration with its innovative client.


The new cafe in Toronto's Manulife Centre builds on the brand elements that Williamson Williamson developed in Pilot's early days. An enclosure of vertical slats, painted in patterns that mimic an unfolded paper airplane unfolds to open the cafe. When closed, the changing pattern is revealed as one moves around the space. Stadium seating is integrated into the millwork enclosure for the first time, responding to the busy foot traffic always present in the mall. As always, natural green elements are present, speaking to the brand's commitment to environmentally sound practices. 


Pilot Coffee Roasters

With a focus on vertical integration, from direct trade through to the production cycle and branded cafés, Pilot Coffee Roasters growth model has laid the foundations for an iterative approach to design and branding, enabling Williamson Williamson to apply its expertise to both the production and consumption sides of the equation.


“Pilot's business model embraces growth as an evolutionary process that builds upon and carries forward successful branding and design elements,” explains Betsy Williamson, a founding partner of the architectural firm. “Accordingly, each new Pilot space is distinct, which allows our firm to infuse fresh creativity into every project.”


The journey begins

Founded in 2009, the client rebranded itself as Pilot Coffee Roasters in 2013, armed with a vision of bringing innovation, education and interactive experiences to the Canadian coffee market. The following year, Williamson Williamson was commissioned to transform an industrial warehouse in Toronto’s east end into a state-of-the-art hub of activity that would house a publicly accessible tasting bar, a roasting facility, cold brew production, a coffee lab and the company’s administrative offices.


The opportunity to become involved in design on both the production and consumption sides of the business appealed to the firm’s commitment to being experts in all that they do. Knowledge of both front end and back end operations is essential to fully understanding the ethos of what a company is all about, which opens the door to creating something that is unique, innovative and responsive to both market and client needs.


“Our specialization in custom residential architecture is derived from an evolution of experience, and our association with Pilot has given us the freedom to apply that design thinking to commercial and production spaces,” says Williamson.



Contained within an industrial shell, the Pilot Coffee Roasters hub consists of a variety of finely-detailed spaces. Upon entry, a curved concrete counter with a white oak base conjures up images of a New York-style café of yesteryear, devoid of clutter and biproducts of the 21st century mass consumption model. Its simplicity and openness conceal an array of innovative design features thanks to an under-counter Modbar module that pushes espresso machine boilers below the counter, eliminating physical barriers between the customer and barista and encouraging interaction.


“Attaining a balance between warmth and innovation was an integral part of creating their branded market presence,” notes Williamson. “The minimalism of the design creates a highly efficient and welcoming production space by hiding the minutia of the service line.”


With the ground space fully occupied by production operations, the decision was made to bridge above it, allowing for a column free addition to house the company’s administrative offices. The structure consists of a corrugated metal deck supported by a steel truss and hangers painted in Pilot Yellow to highlight the construction elements and ensure a bright environment.


The Administrative Office forms the core of the upper level, serving as a hub of interaction and creativity. The space’s sliding glass doors connect to a series of rooms featuring external views, including an Executive Office and Flex Space lined with white oak and light grey painted surfaces. The administrative level also houses Pilot’s Cupping Room, designed for coffee tastings and meetings in a space highlighted by white oak paneling, a custom conference table, a television and a kitchenette. The Staff Lunchroom, completing the upper level spaces, features pixelated green tiles that mimic Pilot’s signature living wall concept.


Distinct consistency

As part of a brand-specific design approach, subsequent collaborations between Pilot Coffee Roasters and Williamson Williamson have drawn upon kernels of existing design elements, while infusing flexible new solutions and detail-rich materiality into tactile modern spaces with distinct characters. Pilot’s ‘Boomerang’ location in Toronto’s Union Station unveiled a 16-linear-foot mobile, self-contained espresso counter that has subsequently found its way, in a variety of forms, into the service lines of all Pilot cafés. Creating an enclosure for the mobile counter, Williamson Williamson introduced a ‘paper airplane’ motif in the design solution, consisting of a painted steel bent plate framework. A testament to the symbiotic nature of the design process, the client would adapt Williamson Williamson’s airplane motif as a logo and core component of their marketing, infusing it into the patterning of their packaging, graphics and coffee cups. With modifications of colour and size, the paper airplane motif has expanded from marketing materials to physical structures and design details in the company’s brick and mortar spaces, including a suspended ceiling plane in Pilot’s Ossington location.


Brick and mortar branding

In 2017, Pilot Coffee Roasters opened its first branded café in First Canadian Place in Toronto’s Financial District, carrying forward design elements of an evolving brand and distinctive palette. Drawing upon elements of earlier designs, the sinuous tasting bar with its slatted white oak base conceals equipment and creates pockets of open spaces for customer/barista interactions. Folded metal accent pieces, painted in Pilot Yellow, were extracted from the airplane motif and applied to the new location’s shelving and counters, including a five-foot cantilevered Airplane Bar. Breathing life into the new space, robust panels of living wall, first applied in Pilot’s Wagstaff hub, feature blooms of Plumosa Fern, Golden Pothos and Moon Philodendron.


“Aesthetically, we have always been on the same page, focusing on a primary concept to design beautiful and comfortable spaces that evoke a natural connection between the product and the feeling it provides you with when you are there,” explains Williamson. “The palette has evolved with each new project, infusing light and energy into the spaces through a series of materials and finishes, including white oak, crisp colours, living walls and the paper airplane motif.”


A crescendo of branding and design

As the brand influences the architecture, the architecture influences the brand, creating aesthetic consistency for Pilot locations within a series of very different spaces. The Manulife Centre location represents the most evolutionary point of that process to date, with sophisticated refinements to branded design elements. Spatial slats, painted with the lenticular image of an unfolded airplane, create a sense of movement throughout the space. Kernels of previous projects have been adopted, integrated and resized, including staples of white oak, metal detailing and living, breathing green walls.


“We approach every project by looking beyond the brief to envision the human interaction that is going to take place in a space,” explains Williamson. “The atmosphere of the Pilot spaces has become as important as the quality of their coffee, and our iterative approach has provided brand consistency that is easily adaptable to the neighbourhood character of each new location.”

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