Pumpkin Spice & Seasonal Flavor Booms
Employees have deja-brew about the intensity of festive drinks
Written by: Abigail Jarvis
From basic pumpkin spice to a wintery peppermint mocha to new twists on classic coffees, employees at massive chains are bamboozled each year by waves of caffeine hunters searching for their seasonal fix of coffee. But how big of a deal are these drinks? When did the hype start, and what is it like to work at one of the American coffee house establishments that sell these sought after drinks?
In 2003, Starbucks began searching for the right concoction to brew a perfect piece of pumpkin pie in a cup. An American director of espresso for Starbucks, Peter Dukes, said, "We saw the success we were having with peppermint mocha, the eggnog latte, and [other] seasonal beverages, and we wanted to expand in the fall period."
The success Dukes was referring to was his team that created the peppermint mocha. The drink was launched in winter 2002 and, according to Starbucks’ Stories & News, “quickly became the most popular holiday beverage in Starbucks history.”
These seasonal drinks have cult followings. “Pumpkin spice latte” has over 40,000 posts on Instagram. It’s practically a holiday in and of itself when the flavor is made available — and the holiday keeps creeping forward each year. In 2021, the PSL made its season debut on August 24, nearly a month before the official start of fall.
ABC7 Chicago reports that “Starbucks alone reportedly sells 20 million pumpkin spice lattes annually.” The week after the drink drop, Starbucks visitors increased by almost 26%, while Dunkin’ Donuts visits for pumpkin spice lattes went up 9.5%. It is no wonder that there are current shortages of the latte ingredients with the pandemic, new growth patterns for produce, supply shortages and consumer demands.
CSU student and Starbucks barista Wesley Buser spoke on mass waves of customer demands and delivery delays. “A lot of customers get frustrated. They scoff and act like it is our fault we don’t have it [ingredients]. Most of the time it is because truck shipments are late.”
Casual consumers and pumpkin spice fanatics alike may not realize the preparation that goes into making the festive drink season successful. Because pumpkin spice is one of the only specialty flavors (a drink with ingredients Starbucks does not have all year long) out of the fall drinks, all employees must be retrained before the big drop. Buser notes that their store often overstocks on supplies because “it is so intense.”
“We definitely get more customers around this time. My location does have quite a few regulars, but there are people who are only coming because of the seasonal festive flavors,” Buser said. “I think the flavors are definitely better during the holiday season as well, so I can’t even blame anybody!”
On the day The Vindicator interviewed Buser, it was Starbucks’ “Red Cup Day.” Buser said, “We order a lot of red cups. Last year we were out by noon. I don’t know if we’re out yet [at 2 p.m.], but it wouldn’t surprise me at all.” Typically (at least at their establishment), Buser said that managers don’t let employees know too far in advance when Red Cup Day is — for fear of massive employee call-offs and shift cancellations.
While Buser doesn’t work extra hours, they noted there aren't seasonal bonuses despite the large uptick in store traffic. “The most we get is if we work either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.”
Holidays are no exception to the caffeine cravings. On Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve last year when Buser worked, “We had our drive-thru wrapped around the whole store all day, and at times into the street.” Buser even emphasized how their store has a larger-than-average drive-thru line that provides ample room for on-the-go customers, but the popularity of the store and the seasonal flavors “caused traffic problems.”
Despite the craziness of the season, Buser said, “I like working [during the] holiday season more than in the summertime. It's nuts, but it at least makes the job go faster.”
In Buser’s opinion, “I feel like the pre-season hype wasn’t as strong this year compared to last.” Conversely, a study done by Restrurantdive.com found that “Fall menu traffic bumps at these brands have increased each year, indicating that the popularity of these specialty products is growing.” The increase in consumer popularity is what likely leads to the drops happening earlier, and the seasonal drinks staying in stores for longer.
The day after pumpkin spice lattes leave the Starbucks menu, Buser notices the reaction from customers. “Immediately [we’re asked], do you have pumpkin?” The month after the absence is even more heavily felt, and that’s when they are commonly asked, “When is pumpkin coming back?!”
Throughout the holiday season, remember — enjoy your festive, seasonal drinks, but also be reminded of all the hardworking people making your beverages. Stay holly and jolly for your baristas. Know that from August through February, they are seeing larger volumes of store traffic, drink orders and chaos. “We have to make sure we’re as calm as possible,” Buser said. “Because it is hectic.”