Remember when the first cool, crisp breeze heralded the end of summer? Or was it the back-to-school sales, or Labor Day, the scent of sharpened pencils or the sight of school buses swinging around the corner? Those signals are meaningless now, because autumn arrives when the pumpkin spice latte returns to Starbucks.
The popular beverage hits stores Tuesday and fans are so thrilled that “pumpkin spice latte” has been a top trending topic on Twitter in the United States since Monday. Yes, even as a spokesperson for the McCain family released the final words of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), or as Florida’s primary day dawns, the return of the PSL is still one of the most talked-about issues in this country.
When did pumpkin-spiced madness begin? The drink’s popularity feels like a phenomenon from the last few years, but Starbucks debuted the PSL in 100 stores in fall 2003. Product manager Peter Dukes developed the recipe over months of testing in the company’s “Liquid Lab,” where the team settled on a formula with pumpkin-spice sauce, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg, topped with whipped cream and pumpkin-pie topping. In a sign of the times in 2015, Starbucks removed artificial flavors and added real pumpkin to the recipe.
“Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” Dukes said in a Starbucks press release on the history of the latte in 2014. “Back then, we would call store managers on the phone to see how a new beverage was doing, and you could hear the excitement in their voices.”
“We would call store managers on the phone to see how a new beverage was doing, and you could hear the excitement in their voices.” — product manager Peter Dukes
It was an immediate hit, but the popularity has really seemed to grow in recent years — to a point where the pumpkin spice latte seems less like a beverage than a cultural icon, a signifier of the passing of time. There’s a reason for this: Starbucks ratcheted up advertising in 2012, around the time when competitors like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts began releasing their own pumpkin coffee drinks. One promotion involved getting cities to compete to “host” the launch of PSL, while another had customers following an online scavenger hunt to get access to the latte before the September debut. The drink has its own official Twitter handle, a Tumblr and of course, a hashtag that’s been tagged over 850,000 times on Instagram.
In its 2014 release, Starbucks stated that they’d sold 200 million of the seasonal lattes; BuzzFeed pumped that number up to 350 million in a 2017 report. By that estimate, the PSL — which starts around $4 — has brought in $1.4 billion in sales since 2003.
Prices vary by location, but in 2018, a tall pumpkin spice latte costs $4.65 before tax in New York City. That may feel like a small indulgence financially, but the drink is truly decadent, calorically: A tall PSL has 300 calories and accounts for 35% of one’s daily recommended saturated fat intake.
The monster numbers may be why the company reintroduced the drink Tuesday, an official drop that’s a week earlier than previous years. Starbucks announced in June that it was closing 150 stores, and the company’s stock price has only risen 1% in the last year, as Forbes noted in August.
Is Starbucks in trouble? Hardly. But launching their beloved pumpkin spice latte a little earlier seems like basic good business. Might as well give the people what they want.