Pumpkin spice season is clearly creeping into the summer. Restaurant software and payments provider SpotOn saw a 2,200% increase in pumpkin items on its independent client’s point-of-sale menus from July 1 to Aug. 7.
During that period, SpotOn reports that these restaurant clients added more than 602 pumpkin menu items. Of those, 65% were beverages: 27% beer, wine, 20% cocktails, 13% coffee and 4% tea.
We can thank Starbucks for starting and fueling the nation’s pumpkin spice obsession. The coffee chain launched its Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) 20 years ago, and the specialty drink has come to mark the unofficial start of fall for many customers.
According to its website, Starbucks wanted to create another seasonal hit in 2003 following the success of its Peppermint Mocha the previous winter. After months of R&D, the Starbucks espresso beverage team came up with the PSL, which is now the chain’s most popular seasonal beverage.
Here are five things to learn from the PSL phenomenon.
- Uniqueness counts. While Starbucks’ customer research showed that chocolate and caramel beverages were most likely to perform best, pumpkin scored high on “uniqueness.” The espresso beverage team ran with it, developing and refining a recipe that brought out the pumpkin pie flavors that best complemented the coffee.
- Consider names carefully. Peter Dukes, who led the Starbucks espresso beverage team at the time, said that they wanted to choose a unique name, such as the fall harvest latte. “We ultimately ended up landing on Pumpkin Spice Latte because the spices play a really important role in bringing out the flavors of pumpkin, while also highlighting the espresso in the cup.”
- Timing is everything. Starbucks usually rolls out its fall menu on a Tuesday, according to location analytics provider Placer, but the chain this year released PSL on Aug. 24 — a Thursday. The proximity to the weekend may have contributed to a 25.1% increase in visits on the launch day, the largest spike in recent years.
- Social media matters. While the PSL was a hit from the beginning, Dukes said that Starbucks was tempted to discontinue the specialty drink, just to keep things new and fresh. It didn’t, though, and when Facebook and Twitter arrived in 2006 and customers began sharing their love for PSL on social media, “it just took off on a whole new level.”
- Keep on innovating. People are clearly passionate about the PSL, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also want to see new and different items on the menu. Starbucks this year added an Iced Pumpkin Cream Chai Tea Latte, inspired by a popular customer and barista customization, and an Iced Apple Crisp Oatmilk Shaken Espresso to the fall lineup. Starbucks Reserve locations in the U.S. introduced the Starbucks Reserve Pumpkin Spice Latte, and a full fall menu, including a new Pumpkin Spice Whiskey Barrel-Aged Iced Latte and Pumpkin Spice Espresso Martini.