Starbucks (SBUX) should be applauded for its restraint. McDonald’s (MCD) and Dunkin Donuts (DNKN) both made their pumpkin spice lattes available earlier this week. (Reminder: That was August, people.)
Over the last few years, the launch dates of the PSL, as its known, have generally been creeping up. Here’s a look at the breakdown:
We as consumers need to take responsibility for our part in contributing to PSL creep. I asked Dunkin’ Donuts, who led the pack this year, with the early release why they continued to move up the launch date. The company said its customers “show such an enormous amount of anticipation and excitement for the return of pumpkin beverages and baked goods earlier each year, even before the summer comes to a close.” In the New York City area, pumpkin-flavored drinks were available starting August 18 “due to customer feedback that they wanted pumpkin even earlier.”
I’ll admit it—I enjoy a PSL occasionally. But the PSL’s rise and infringement is symptomatic of a few key things that are wrong with our food system.
- We refuse to eat seasonally. Pumpkins are a fall thing so why are we eating a squash product in the summer? It’s emblematic of how consumers are increasingly demanding local fare but don’t want to give up eating things like strawberries in the winter. We can’t have it all ways.
- We are confused by what is in our food. There’s something romantic and warm and fuzzy about a dash or dollop of pumpkin in your coffee. But let’s get real. Pumpkin spice is more about the spice and the sugar than the pumpkin. Until last year, Starbucks’ PSL didn’t even contain pumpkin. Food is all about marketing, and more often than not that marketing doesn’t line up with our expectations. The term “healthy” is a prime example. The healthiest foods—fruits and vegetables—are usually not marketed at all.
- Innovation in the food industry is lacking. Errol Schweizer, a former Whole Foods (WFM) executive who is now an industry adviser, views the rise of pumpkin spice as a symbol of how the food industry has become more about imitation than innovation. That’s why just about every major restaurant chain now has a PSL, and we’ve been graced with everything from pumpkin spice yogurt to gum. Its ubiquity has ruined all of its specialness. Come on, guys—let’s try something else.