Peter Dukes is credited with being the man behind the coffee making that defined an entire season: Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. It all started at the company’s headquarters in Seattle in 2001.
“Are you PSL’s father?” Michelle Miller of CBS News asked, referring to the drink.
âThat’s what some say. Yes,â Dukes said.
Dukes is now Director of Global Growth and Concepts. But he was once in charge of espresso drinks for the company. Following the success of Starbucks’ Peppermint Mocha parties, Dukes and other employees were invited to create a drink for the fall season.
âSo we came up with a hundred different ideas and narrowed them down to ten,â Dukes said. âWe had about 500 customers who looked at these ten concepts. When we got the results, the chocolate and the caramel, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to buy that for sure.’ Cinnamon, solid, good enough. This is something people don’t know or are aware of. Pumpkin Spice Latte never had the chance to come up with the prototype. “
“So what are you saying was the flavor that almost wasn’t?” Miller asked.
âIt was the flavor that almost wasn’t. And what saved it was that it was a unique drink,â Dukes said. “What we didn’t know at the time was whether or not this was something our customers would want to try.”
So making that winning flavor wouldn’t be a piece of cake, even if it involved part of something else.
âWe brought pumpkin pies into our R&D lab and actually just poured shots of espresso on them and ate them,â Dukes said.
For 18 years, customers have eaten them with more than 500 million copies sold since their debut in 2003.
âThis is probably something that psychology, economics, and marketing courses could study for centuries,â said Dr. Catherine Franssen of the Science Museum of Virginia.
She believes that all of this success comes from science.
âThe pumpkin spice has the ability to really reach the center of our memories on a very emotional level,â said Franssen. âAt the heart of it all is sugar. We actually encode memories of what is associated with sugar. For example, the smell of pumpkin spice.â
But the high sugar content also sparked complaints from health-conscious consumers, along with the use of artificial flavors in the original recipe and the lack of a real pumpkin.
âI think that made us think a little more about how we could even improve it,â said Thomas Prather, vice president of brand and product marketing at Starbucks. Prather said this led to a change in recipe in 2015.
âI think it kinda woke up the industry by looking inward and saying, ‘How can we have cleaner ingredients? How can we be more innovative in what we deliver to our customers? “And that pushed us all forward,” Prather said.
The new recipe increased its popularity; PSL got its own Twitter account and an official Instagram account in 2015. Two years later, Starbucks live streamed the early arrival of its PSL, which debuted in late August. It recorded more than 8 million visits.
âPSL brought fun to coffee and brought people who weren’t purists into coffee culture,â said Pather.
“Having fun at the cafe?” Miller asked.
âYeah. So if you think of coffee before PSL, in the early 2000s it was you had a cappuccino. Or you just had a doppio espresso,â Prather replied. “And once we started making it more accessible, people started to think about it,” It’s more than just a utility drink that I’m going to have before work. “
The drink has led to a profusion of products including seasonal drinks and the expansion of its spaces like the Reserve Bar and the Bistro in some cities.
“Would all of this be possible without PSL, Pumpkin Spice Latte?” Miller asked.
âI think Pumpkin Spice Latte and the success of it has given us the confidence that we can do whatever we want with coffee,â said Prather.
âIt took a whole new level that, again, no one could have predicted,â Dukes said.