Food

Pumpkin spice is exploding on menus—and it's earlier than ever

Summer’s heat wave continues to blanket the country and fall is officially more than a month away, but the influx of pumpkin on chain menus began as soon as the calendar flipped to August.
Exploding pumpkin
Pumpkin palooza got off to any early start this summer, and the flavor explosion will continue well into fall. | Image by Nico Heins.

The summer of 2023 is shaping up to be the hottest on record, but that didn’t stop the influx of pumpkin-flavored coffees, baked goods and more on chain menus as soon as the calendar flipped to August.

7-Eleven was first out of the gate, giving customers “the first taste of fall” on Aug. 1 with the launch of Pumpkin Spice Latte and Pumpkin Coffee, boasting that “it’s earlier than ever this year.”

Krispy Kreme’s pumpkin debut came a week later on Aug. 7, with the release of four pumpkin-flavored doughnuts and iced, frozen and hot Pumpkin Spice Coffees and Lattes.

“It’s one day earlier than last year,” said Dave Skena, Global Chief Brand Officer for Krispy Kreme, “but 2022 was significantly earlier than the year before.” Krispy Kreme’s ads “wink” at the fact that it’s still very hot outside. But it seems that pumpkin spice fans seem more than ready.

Indeed, the start of pumpkin spice season has steadily creeped into August since Starbucks debuted its first Pumpkin Spice Latte 20 years ago. Back in 2003, it was clearly positioned as a seasonal LTO for fall, patterned after the coffee giant’s top-selling Eggnog Latte and Peppermint Latte during the holidays, according to the Starbucks archives.

In the summer of 2022, this granddaddy of PSLs made its appearance on Aug. 23, but rumor has it that Aug. 24 is this year’s launch date. “At the moment we’re currently enjoying Starbucks latest summer sip, Frozen Lemonade Starbucks Refreshers, and are not quite ready to welcome fall yet,” said a Starbucks spokesperson in an email.

And Dunkin’ is reportedly introducing the 2023 pumpkin crop next week, according to a spokesperson: “While we can't spill the beans just yet on all things fall, Dunkin’ is getting ready to spice things up this season starting August 16.” That’s a day earlier than last year and two days earlier than 2022.

Why the rush?

“Consumers seem to want it earlier every year and they are voting with their pocketbooks,” said Skena. “Maybe the fact that this summer is hotter makes them hopeful that cooler weather is ahead when they get that first taste of pumpkin. We asked ourselves ‘are we jumping the shark’ this year, and the answer was ‘no.’”

Grocery shelves were already filled with pumpkin-themed packaged products back in July, and that creates some urgency, he added.

In Krispy Kreme’s lineup are two classics—the Pumpkin Spice Original Glazed Doughnut and the old-fashioned Pumpkin Spice Cake Doughnut. Joining them for 2023 are the Pumpkin Spice Cheesecake Swirl Doughnut and Pumpkin Spice Maple Pecan Doughnut.

Krispy Kreme's pumpkin lineup

Krispy Kreme debuted four doughnuts and three pumpkin spice coffees on Aug. 7, with more to come later in the season. 

Skena believes that pumpkin spice is more than a flavor—it’s a cultural phenomenon—and Krispy Kreme’s early start gets the conversation going. In fact, the Charlotte, N.C.-based chain even teased pumpkin on April 1 of this year, kind of as an April Fool’s joke. “People came in and ‘ate the joke’ and had fun with it,” he said.

Early bird specials at the indies

The pumpkin palooza began even earlier this summer at independent restaurants, reports SpotOn, the restaurant software and payments provider. More than 602 pumpkin items were added to its restaurant clients’ point-of-sale menus from July 8-Aug. 7.

“Last year, we didn’t see the surge happening until the very end of August and into September,” said Kevin Bryla, SpotOn’s CMO and head of customer experience. He agrees that pumpkin flavors give consumers hope in 90-degree weather, “making them yearn for fall,” giving those early bird restaurants an advantage.

Among the categories that saw the most pumpkin action at independents were beverages and treats. Twenty percent of the items were cocktails, 27% beer, 13% coffee and 4% tea, with baked goods and dessert menu items coming in at 23%.

Bryla cited several examples of what’s happening with pumpkin on indy menus. Michael Mina’s restaurant group launched a vegan pumpkin bread, while Michelin-starred Cote Korean Steakhouse is offering a frozen pumpkin spice cocktail, autumn’s take on the popular frose.

Savory applications are also showing up, including pumpkin tempura rolls at Hatsuhana, a sushi restaurant, and pumpkin curry at Thai and Indian restaurants.

“No one flavor dominates as much,” said Bryla, adding that the anticipation and strong demand is due to the limited-time nature of the flavor. “Last year, there was no major drop-off in demand for six weeks,” he added.

Get ready for more

Chains are poised to meet that demand by extending the pumpkin spice season through mid- and late October. Krispy Kreme’s seasonal items will be around longer this year than last, said Skena, running through Oct. 8. And he hinted that the chain will be introducing more pumpkin treats closer to the fall “to keep it interesting,” he said.

Carvel

Carvel's Pumpkin Cheesecake soft serve is features in several seasonal treats. | Photo courtesy of Focus Brands.

Other brands are starting a little later but running through to Halloween. IHOP shared that it will be launching its seasonal pumpkin spice items nationwide on Aug. 28. An announcement Monday will reveal exactly what those will be, but pancakes are a good guess. Since 2008, IHOP averages over 1 million pumpkin pancakes sold per year, the chain shared.

Also coming on Aug. 28 is Carvel’s new Pumpkin Cheesecake lineup, which features the brand’s original soft serve blended with creamy pumpkin cheesecake. Extensions include a Pumpkin Cheesecake Flying Saucer, Pumpkin Cheesecake Sundae Dasher and Pumpkin Cheesecake Scooped, a combo of pumpkin cheesecake soft serve with caramel, cheesecake bites and spiced cinnamon crunch.

Jamba

Jamba is bringing back its Pumpkin Smash Smoothie and launching a Pumpkin Smash Bowl. | Photo courtesy of Focus Brands.

Sister Focus Brands concept, Jamba, is rolling out a new Pumpkin Smash Bowl and returning its Pumpkin Smash Smoothie later this month. Both feature Jamba’s signature pumpkin spice blend flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, then combined with 2% milk and/or frozen yogurt. Customers can also make it plant-based by swapping out the dairy products for oat milk versions.

And East Lansing, Mich.-based Biggby Coffee is bringing Pumpkin Spice Latte back to its 332 locations on Aug. 24, along with another fall favorite—Caramel Apple Cider. 

“Flavors come and go, but pumpkin spice is here to stay,” said Skena. Stay tuned for more in the weeks ahead.

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