UPDATE: Aug. 23, 2023: Starbucks announced Wednesday that its pumpkin drinks would be released on Aug. 24.
America is still in the dog days of summer, but Dunkin' declared the start of fall last week. The chain brought back its pumpkin spiced beverages on Aug. 16, kicking off an autumnal-flavored arms race among coffee giants — even as temperatures cracked triple digits in the Pacific Northwest.
Industrywide, however, pumpkin spice creep began in July, according to data from SpotOn, which found 602 pumpkin-flavored items were added to restaurant menus between July 8 and August 7. The additions constituted a 2,200% increase in pumpkin items added since July 1. The vast majority of these products (about 65%) were beverages.
This trend toward earlier pumpkin-flavored beverage releases can be traced across U.S. coffee chains over the last few years. Peet’s and Tim Horton’s U.S. both shifted their pumpkin debut dates up to late August from early September, which may enable the brands to capture more traffic related to back-to-school season.
Other coffee chains have maintained a consistent release rhythm over the past few years, however. Starbucks released its pumpkin spice drinks on the fourth or fifth Tuesday of August, according to Restaurant Dive’s research. Starbucks announced that its pumpkin drinks would return Thursday, Aug. 24.
Dunkin’, since 2019, has released its fall drinks on the third Wednesday of August, save in 2022, when it chose Aug. 10, the second Wednesday of the month. Dutch Bros, by contrast, has generally taken a date-based approach, promoting its pumpkin products on Sept. 3, 2019, and on Sept. 1 in subsequent years.
The chart below shows the variation in release dates for pumpkin-flavored coffee drinks across five of the biggest QSR coffee chains in the U.S.
Major U.S. coffee chains generally release pumpkin beverages earlier than in 2019.
Caribou moved the release of its pumpkin-flavored LTO drinks up by a week. The products will return on Aug. 24 this year — the fourth Thursday of the month — while it rolled out the items on the last Thursday of August the past four years. The chart appears to show that pumpkin spice coffee release dates are getting earlier across the board, but for some chains, this is reflective of release date variations due to fitting a seven-day week into a 31-day month.
Still, with competitors like 7-Eleven pushing pumpkin spice season earlier into summer, brands may feel pressured to release their fall-centric products sooner to capitalize on initial consumer excitement. This year, 7-Eleven added its pumpkin-flavored coffee drinks on Aug. 1, a day when temperatures pushed up toward 108 degrees in Irving, Texas, where the company is headquartered.
Pumpkin remains king, but challengers are emerging
Other fall flavors surged over the past few weeks as well, with SpotOn counting hundreds of maple, pecan and pear items joining menus over July and early August. But pumpkin-flavored drinks remain the herald of autumn even as flavor profiles evolve, said Kristin Jones, research and development director, technical and innovation at coffee supplier Westrock Coffee.
“It’s still a must-have for Fall, ahead of any other flavors. Even if they launch Peppermint Mocha or others — Pumpkin Spice comes first in the development schedule,” Jones said in a statement emailed to Restaurant Dive.
Brands begin stocking up on pumpkin-flavored mixes, syrups and ready-to-drink coffee products in July and August to prepare for the fall season, said Shea Halligan, SVP of sales enablement and client experience at Westrock Coffee.
“[Pumpkin] remains a popular offering and we tend to see this same level of spike from year to year,” Halligan said.
This staying power remains even as demand for cold coffee has experienced double digit growth in recent years. The chemistry differences between hot and cold coffee could eventually lead to a shift in flavor profiles for pumpkin spiced drinks, or fall drinks more broadly, but that hasn’t happened yet, Westrock experts have said.
“It’s still important for cold coffee,” Jones said. “There is a wide variation in what they want from a flavor perspective though — in the beginnings of Pumpkin Spice, the focus seemed to be on the spices themselves, but now consumers want a roasted pumpkin/pumpkin pie [flavor] piece in addition.”