By Sam Padgett
Fourteen years ago, the pumpkin spice latte crashed into our lives when Starbucks introduced it into its seasonal lineup. And this beverage has gone from a niche fall drink to being ubiquitous enough to warrant its own acronym: PSL.
Pumpkin spice fever has become something of an epidemic, and its sheer popularity has inspired a litany of products. Not only is there pumpkin spice vodka, lip balm and soap, but there are even pumpkin spice dog treats.
This drink has firmly cemented itself into our seasonal culinary tradition, like turkey on Thanksgiving or eggnog on Christmas. To fully dissect this trend, I visited the people it affects most: baristas.
September is officially the beginning of PSL season, but requests for iced pumpkin spice lattes aren’t uncommon in the summer—nearly every barista I talked with said she currently receives a couple queries about the drink daily. However, none of the baristas I interviewed was fanatic about the drink themselves. Many of them confessed they had never had one; they weren’t intrigued by the prospect of pumpkins in coffee. Heather Thompson, a barista at Splendora’s Gelato Cafe, says, “I enjoy pumpkin as a food, not a beverage.” All of the baristas I talked with at Milli Coffee Roasters said they’d rather eat a pumpkin pie from The Pie Chest than drink anything pumpkin flavored.
But to truly understand the pumpkin spice phenomenon, I went straight to the source, and talked with Bri Boyd, a barista at a Starbucks located on UVA’s Grounds. According to her, most pumpkin spice latte-ordering customers are repeat customers: “Some people will order one every day,” she says. She estimates that roughly three out of every 10 customers in the autumn order pumpkin spice lattes, a vastly different figure than other local coffee shops like Grit Coffee and Java Java, which report they only sell a few daily.
Essentially, Starbucks created a product that is mostly desirable due to its limited availability. Our positive associations with the season create an innate sense of nostalgia, and nostalgia is an incredible marketing tool. Sure, there are undoubtedly many people who sincerely love PSLs, in all of their cinnamon-and-clove goodness, but there is also a whole continent full of people who like Vegemite; food tastes are just as subjective as tastes in art or music.
Nick Leichtentritt, owner of Milli Coffee Roasters, views the whole phenomenon with a dash of optimism. “I like the idea of doing things seasonally,” he says. “Our palates change with the season, and if people like pumpkin spice lattes, then we’ll make them well.”