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Forget the Decorative Gourds, Pumpkin Spice Is the True Sign of the Season

October 18, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC

Pastry chef Andrea Lekberg was surprised when customers started asking for pumpkin spice baked goods during the summer months.

“It was 90 degrees out and I was like ‘Talk to me in October,’” recalled Lekberg, owner of The Artist Baker in Morristown, N.J. 

Well, October is here and pumpkin spice season is in full swing.  

Starting in late August, the limited edition pumpkin spice-flavored products started showing up on store shelves and chain restaurant menus. There it was, at Starbucks and Dunkin’ and in grocery stores and, because customers can’t get enough of it, local bakeries like Lekberg’s The Artist Baker.

Pumpkin spice has even found its way into bone broth, beer, vodka, dog biscuits, skincare masks, and mustache waxes.

Even Spam jumped into the pumpkin patch this year, introducing a limited edition “Pumpkin Spice” canned pork product.

“I’ve seen images of pumpkin spice motor oil,” said David Portalatin, vice president, food industry advisor at the NPD Group, a market research firm. “It’s taken on a life in itself. ”

The proliferation of pumpkin spice products, with the scents or flavors of a mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice, seem to have no end in sight.

“Pumpkin spice is touching something that’s really basic with consumers,” said Bobby Calder, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Flavor is really a surrogate to much more psychological things. It’s the idea and associations that people have to it—pumpkin pie, the holidays, the start of fall, Halloween.”

Companies are hitting on something that’s of value to consumers and they’re trying to get the most out of it, Calder noted. To them, pumpkin spice is more than a brand, it’s an idea.

“It’s a brand that can be used to brand brands. It can be done with a latte or a can of Spam,” Calder said.

Annual sales of pumpkin spice-flavored products reached $511.5 million for the year ending Aug. 25, 2019, up 4.7% from 2018’s $488.8 million, according to Nielsen data. In 2018, pumpkin spice-flavored product sales started to climb a week earlier than they did in 2017, Nielsen said.

The same demand can be seen when looking at receipts from the prepared foods and beverages industries, said Portalatin of NPD. According to their research, 24% of people who bought pumpkin spice last year bought it in the previous year.

“People have come to expect it; it’s a way of delighting your loyal customers,” Portalatin said.

At The Artist Baker, Lekberg recognized the consumer demand so she set out to perfect the star ingredient, pumpkin spice, as she’s not a fan of the generic pre-made blend sold in stores. This fall, her pumpkin-themed fare includes pumpkin spice cheesecake marshmallows, pumpkin whoopie pies, buttermilk mini cupcakes topped with pumpkin spice butter cream and toasted pecans and, of course, classic pumpkin pie.

“When we make our pumpkin spice, we add more vanilla and equal amounts cinnamon to nutmeg and that makes a really solid spice. It’s not perfumery or weird, it’s just wonderful,” said Lekberg, whose 11-year-old bakery has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation.

Like Lekberg, General Mills knows that there’s serious demand for pumpkin spice. They introduced Pumpkin Spice Cheerios—made with real pumpkin puree and a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—in 2016.

“People love the cereal, which is why we keep bringing it back every year,” said Liz Mascolo, vice president of marketing at Cheerios. “They look for it everywhere.”

Yes, it is basic?

The appeal of pumpkin spice is basic, says food scientist Kantha Shelke, in that it triggers nostalgic feelings.

“The aroma of pumpkin spice immediately transports people to all the warm and friendly times generally associated with pumpkin pie,” said Shelke, of Corvus Blue, a food research firm. “Holiday gatherings, families in the kitchen, celebrations, treats and sweets—things that childhood memories are made of are usually generally uplifting and make one happy. Our brains, keen in sorting out aromas, immediately transport our frame of mind to good times.”

Pumpkin spice can also elevate one’s mood, she noted.

“Pumpkin spice is as potent as juniper and pine and wood burning stoves and fireplaces that can change our frame of mind and soothe us,” Shelke said. “Wellness of the mind can lead to wellness of the body, so it is a good craving for some people.”

Where pumpkin spice season began

Pumpkin spice first hit the scene in 2003, when Starbucks tested the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 100 stores in Vancouver and Washington, D.C. In 2004, Starbucks launched the beverage nationally.

To date, it’s the top-selling beverage in the brand’s history, having sold more than 424 million lattes, according to a Starbucks spokesperson. This fall, Starbucks launched the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, its first new pumpkin coffee beverage in 16 years. Both beverages are made with real pumpkin, said the spokesperson.

At Dunkin’, demand for pumpkin products was so high the brand launched its limited edition pumpkin products earlier this season, said Paul Racicot, director of global culinary innovation at Dunkin’ Brands.

“People just want it,” Racicot said. “On the store level and in social, they’re asking, ‘when is it coming?’”

For fall, the coffee and baked goods chain introduced the new Cinnamon Sugar Pumpkin Signature Latte, featuring pumpkin and cinnamon flavors, adding to its seasonal pumpkin-flavored coffees, pumpkin donuts, and pumpkin muffins.

Racicot said he doesn’t think the pumpkin craze will diminish anytime soon. “Every time I try to predict its demise I’m wrong,” Racicot said. 

Part of the appeal of pumpkin spice appeal is that consumers anticipate the season each year, Calder of Northwestern University said.

“The biggest mistake people could make is making this a year-round thing,” Calder said. “It’s more about creating an experience. Something you can anticipate and something you can celebrate. For lots of things, the anticipation of it is more enjoyable than the actual thing.”

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