Early in 2003, a small group gathered in the “Liquid Lab,” a secure research and development space on the 7th floor of Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. The lab was a cross between a chef’s kitchen and a scientist’s playground – with industrial refrigerators, espresso equipment, and an eclectic mix of potential ingredients and flavors.
Peter Dukes, director of espresso Americas for Starbucks, was the product manager who led the development of Pumpkin Spice Latte.
“Nobody knew back then what it would grow to be,” Dukes said. "It’s taken on a life of its own.”
He shares the story of Starbucks® Pumpkin Spice Latte – which has become the company’s most popular seasonal beverage of all time – was created 11 years ago.
The team had successfully developed the recipes for holiday favorites Eggnog Latte and Peppermint Mocha, and were looking for a new beverage to add to the fall espresso lineup. On this spring day, the team brought in kitschy fall decorations and pumpkin pies, and began to explore ideas for a pumpkin-inspired espresso beverage. They would sample a forkful of pumpkin pie, followed by a sip of hot espresso – teasing out which flavors from the pie best complemented the coffee.
Nods went around the room. Dukes and the team felt they were on to something.
They soon received the go-ahead from senior leaders to work on a prototype, and for the next three months tasted and re-tasted different versions of the beverage. They settled on a recipe that used pumpkin spice sauce with cinnamon, clove and nutmeg – handcrafted with espresso and steamed milk – and topped off with whipped cream and a dash of pumpkin pie topping.
In fall 2003, Starbucks first brought the beverage to 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington, D.C. to test the beverage.
“Within the first week of the market test, we knew we had a winner,” Dukes said. “Back then, we would call store managers on the phone to see a new beverage was doing, and you could hear the excitement in their voices.”
The next fall, Pumpkin Spice Latte rolled out across the company’s U.S. stores, and a new fall tradition was begun. The beverage built a loyal fan base and has been enjoyed more than 200 million times in the decade since.
“Pumpkin Spice Latte has become more than just a beverage,” Dukes said. “It has become a harbinger of the season.”