Menu + Food

Capturing Seasonal Trends: 20 Years of Pumpkin Spice Latte

Why do customers love Pumpkin Spice Lattes? How can you translate that into success for your restaurant? Learn all that and more today!
Trace Mannewitz

Dread it, run from it; Pumpkin Spice Latte season arrives all the same. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past two decades, the yearly return of Starbucks' popular pumpkin spice latte is an event much beloved by people nationwide. Since its introduction in 2003, it has experienced a meteoric rise and ascended past seasonal special to American culture icon. 

But you and other restaurant owners might ask: why? Why does the PSL work, and how was Starbucks able to turn a simple, sugary drink into an event that transcends the brand itself? And better yet— how can I introduce the same success to my restaurant? 

Why Do Customers Love Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Before discussing how this applies to your restaurant, let's examine why PSL works. According to research by The Food Institute and NBC News, it boils down to two distinct yet intertwined reasons: seasonal love and the nose. 

Seasonal Love

Fall is many North Americans' favorite season, and for good reason. Fall brings: 

  • Halloween
  • New School Year
  • Thanksgiving
  • Football 

Whether it's the specific days and events or the psychological sense of a fresh start and change, the season carries significance for a majority of people.

Power of the Nose

One of the second reasons for PSL love is the power of the nose. Typically, when we taste things, it's a combination of our sense of smell and our sense of taste. Different foods play with these senses in different ways, with some spices like cardamom and lavender being nose-driven, while acids like vinegar are almost entirely taste-based. 

Think of pumpkin spice as a power coupling of the senses. It has a unique taste and smell that is unmistakably pumpkin spice. 

Now, for an even more psychological reason. The olfactory senses in the nose are some of the most powerful for smelling delicious foods and emotional recall. By tying such a rich smell to a season that most people love, they've created a cocktail of nostalgia and warm fuzzies that carries people's daily dose of caffeine and enough sugar to keep a child wired for hours. 

Benefits of Limited Time Offers

Can you recreate the success of pumpkin spice latte within your restaurant? Absolutely! You may not reach the same level of national sensation, but any restaurant can benefit from creating seasonal or limited-time dishes. 

Capturing Seasonal Traffic

The best way to create a hit seasonal dish is to focus on what makes you unique and why your customers love you. 

Are you a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant that focuses on Greek food? Create a killer tzatziki dressing for your seasonal springtime salad! 

Health-focused eatery? Limited-time dishes as people work towards their summer bods can help drive traffic to your restaurant when the competition is highest. 

Building seasonal items that make sense for your restaurant is the easiest way to create a sense of urgency for your customers. No one likes the feeling of missing out, and we want to use that feeling to drive more traffic to your store. 

Turning Seasonal Dishes Into An Event

One of the most successful marketing aspects of the pumpkin spice latte was turning it into an event. The PSL's incredible rise over the past ten years is due to them consistently promoting and hyping up the product for the decade prior. 

That's the entire equation. Continually building interest plus time can elevate any product or dish in the public eye if the general reception is there. 

Menu Freshness

Battling menu fatigue can be a complicated process. While some regulars love to order "the usual," many customers prefer a more varied palette. Creating (and managing) a revolving menu is a difficult balance to strike. 

Luckily, having reliable change a couple of times a year can alleviate some of that stress by having that necessary change already planned out. All that matters at that point is that your menu management software is up to the task. 

Best Limited-Time Fast Food Items

Want a second opinion? Starbucks isn't the only business that has capitalized on the seasonal offerings. Fast food giant McDonald's also boasts a (mostly) positive track record for drumming up excitement for limited-time offers. Popular items include: 

  • Grimace Shake (and the surprising TikTok trend that followed)
  • McRib
  • Shamrock Shake
  • Perennial changing of Kid's Meal Toys

Each of these products is promoted for one purpose: to capture (or recapture) a part of their audience they wouldn't usually reach. 

Turning Limited-Time Dishes into Long-Term Success

If the 20-year journey of the pumpkin spice latte can teach us anything, it's that seasonal or limited-time offers can provide a lot of benefits to any restaurant. Combine it with promotional marketing or AI-powered upsell recommendations, and you have a certified hit. 

Trying to figure out where to start? Analyze your guest data to see which dishes are doing well and what keeps people coming back to your restaurant.