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Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte turns 20; how it came about

Published:Thursday | September 7, 2023 | 12:07 AM
The seasonal pumpkin spice latte is marking two decades in the world.
The seasonal pumpkin spice latte is marking two decades in the world.

The seasonal drink that made pumpkin spice a star is turning 20. And unlike the autumn days it celebrates, there seems to be no chill in customer demand overseas.

Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte is the coffee giant’s most popular seasonal beverage, with hundreds of millions sold since its launch in 2003, but it wasn’t always this way.

Canned pumpkin and pie spices were relegated to the baking aisle when Starbucks began experimenting with an autumn drink that would replicate the success of the peppermint mocha, which took the winter holidays by storm in 2002. Customer surveys suggested chocolate or caramel drinks, but Starbucks noticed that pumpkin scored high for “uniqueness”. That would turn out to be prescient.

In the spring of 2003, a team gathered in a lab in Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters, bringing fall decorations to set the mood. They sipped espresso between bites of pumpkin pie, figuring out which spices most complemented the coffee. After three months, they offered taste tests; pumpkin spice beat out chocolate and caramel drinks.

Starbucks tested the pumpkin spice latte in 100 stores in Washington, DC, and Vancouver, British Columbia, that fall. The company quickly realised it had a winner and rolled it out across the United States and Canada the following fall. And in 2015, a watershed: The company added real pumpkin to the recipe.

These days, Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte has its own handle on X – formerly known as Twitter – with 82,000 followers, and a Facebook fan group called the Leaf Rakers Society with 43,000 members.