CHICAGO -- Before the first tree has shed its leaves, somewhere in America a teen has likely already Instagrammed her first #PSL of the season. The pumpkin spice latte has risen to ubiquity after Seattle-based Starbucks brought the beverage into the mainstream in 2003. In the drink’s first decade alone, Starbucks sold more than 200 million pumpkin spice lattes. It has been so successful that Starbucks trademarked the “PSL” abbreviation.
“Pumpkin spice latte has become more than just a beverage,” said Peter Dukes, who led Starbucks’ development team for the drink, in 2014. “It has become a harbinger of the season.” As the celebrated drink approaches its 15th year, retailers and industry experts forecast how the pumpkin spice latte will continue to be a lucrative staple of the season.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Fresh takes on the classic
A new crop of pumpkin spice products pops up each fall in an increasingly crowded burnt-orange marketplace. Standing out requires shaking up the standard trifecta of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove flavors. Last year, Starbucks diversified its PSL portfolio with the Pumpkin Spice Chai Latte, and Berkeley, Calif.-based Peet’s Coffee offered a vegan variation on the beverage with coconut milk. Pilot Flying J will also layer new flavors this fall with its Pumpkin Caramel Macchiato. “Pumpkin spice as a stand-alone is trending away, so we’ll start to see a move toward combining the base pumpkin flavor with other flavors—for example, pumpkin paired with chocolate and nuts, caramel, other fruit or possibly unexpected flavors,” said Shannon Johnson, vice president of food innovation for the Knoxville, Tenn.-based chain. Johnson expects to see innovation around how the pumpkin is prepared, such as roasted or smoked.
Photograph courtesy of Pilot Flying J
The consumer packaged goods industry has chewed up and spit out the pumpkin spice trend, with everything from pumpkin spice protein bars to vodka and cheese. Foodservice destinations are also trying on new formats for the flavor profile. In 2017, Au Bon Pain unveiled its maple-pumpkin butter spread, and Baskin-Robbins released a pumpkin cheesecake ice cream and milkshake.
On the c-store side, Yesway is striving this fall to deliver the same type of pumpkin spice experience for guests. “We want to create a satisfying pumpkin experience without complicating it too much for our guests,” said Frank White, director of foodservice for the West Des Moines, Iowa-based chain. “There will be some expansion in terms of paired offerings to enhance the coffee offer, such as pumpkin spice cakes.”
Though the vessel might change, pumpkin spice has staying power, according to some industry experts. “Pumpkins are and will remain the core flavor for fall and will continue to be paired in various ways in both food and drink, especially in bakery,” said Kevin Elder, senior manager for Dawn Food Products’ North American Market Research & Insights. With gourd-centric products including pumpkin cake doughnuts and pumpkin maple brownies, the Jackson, Mich.-based wholesale bakery and foodservice distributor is betting on the trend’s future.
Photograph courtesy of Yesway
Starbucks helped turn the pumpkin spice latte into a social-media star, and now posting about the drink is as much part of the PSL experience as drinking it.
“It’s such a social-media moment now,” said Aimee Harvey, managing editor for CSP’s sister company Technomic. “People are still posting it on Instagram and Twitter, and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon. It’s kind of this race of who can put it out there first and who can put it up on social media first.”
To create the biggest social splash, last year Dunkin’ Donuts tapped viral video star “Dancing Pumpkin Man”—a black-clothed figure wearing a pumpkin mask—to signal the return of its pumpkin coffee beverages.
Yesway also plans to connect with its pumpkin spice fans with a social-media blitz and in-store callouts at the coffee bar. “Guests are rabid for these flavors every fall,” White said.
Photograph courtesy of Starbucks