In most parts of the U.S., the season of fall is associated with green tree foliage and warm temperatures. However, in the world of restaurants and retailers, fall arrives much earlier. Traditionally, Halloween candy and pumpkin spice lattes would make their annual debuts after Labor Day, marking the official start of fall. But in recent years, establishments have been releasing their autumnal food and beverages even earlier, creating an extended fall season.
According to Technomic, a research firm tracking the top 500 restaurant chains and top 40 convenience stores, the number of limited-time pumpkin launches more than doubled from 2019 to August 2022, reaching a total of 86 launches. While November remains the most popular month for pumpkin-themed items, timed for Thanksgiving, August is gaining ground. The trend towards an extended fall season aligns with the increasing popularity of pumpkin-flavored food and beverages throughout the autumn. In 2019, there were 268 pumpkin-themed seasonal items available at restaurants and convenience stores, a number that more than doubled to 559 by 2022.
Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group, attributes the shift to three main factors. Firstly, companies see profitability in early fall launches. Secondly, the popularity of pumpkin-flavored products indicates consumer demand for such items. Lastly, consumer research suggests that companies have permission to push the boundaries of timing when it comes to fall-themed releases.
Another contributing factor to the early arrival of fall flavors is the changing nature of the school year. As schools start earlier, the significance of Labor Day as a seasonal indicator has diminished. Many families engage in back-to-school shopping in August, making it a convenient time to pick up Halloween candy and other fall-related items. This overlap allows parents to fulfill multiple needs with a single shopping trip.
Starbucks is often credited with popularizing pumpkin-themed drinks and food. Their pumpkin spice latte, introduced 20 years ago, played a significant role in establishing the trend. Peter Dukes, one of the original creators of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, recalls a time when pumpkin purchases were limited to pumpkin puree in grocery aisles. Starbucks’ role in shaping the fall menu landscape cannot be overstated.
However, Starbucks also faces criticism from some consumers who object to the early introduction of fall menus. Since 2018, the coffee chain has been releasing the pumpkin spice latte in August. This year, the launch took place on August 24, tying with 2021 as the earliest rollout yet. According to Starbucks spokesperson Erin Stan, the timing of the release aligns with customers returning to their routines at the end of August.
As Starbucks has pushed the fall season earlier, they have adjusted their menu offerings. In 2019, they introduced the pumpkin cream cold brew, and this year they added the iced pumpkin cream chai latte. Both drinks cater to the rising popularity of cold beverages and the need for temperature-appropriate options in late August. Despite these tempting options, some consumers, like 28-year-old lawyer Eleni Demestihas from Denver, choose to delay their first pumpkin spice latte until mid-October when the weather is cooler.
Early Birds in the Fall Menu Arena
While Starbucks has faced criticism, other companies have jumped into the fall menu arena even earlier. Dunkin’, owned by Inspire Brands, released its autumn menu on August 16, eight days before Starbucks. Krispy Kreme rolled out its pumpkin spice doughnut lineup on August 7. IHOP, known for their pancake offerings, launched their fall menu, including pumpkin spice pancakes and pumpkin spice cold brew, on August 28, slightly later than their 2021 launch.
According to Kieran Donahue, IHOP’s Chief Marketing Officer, the timing of these menu releases is based on consumer insights. IHOP sells around one million pumpkin spice pancakes each time they return to the menu. Donahue believes that the popularity of the item would remain high regardless of when it is offered.
While some establishments choose to start the fall season early, many companies continue to adhere to traditional seasonal boundaries. Reynolds’ Hefty, for example, plans to release their cinnamon pumpkin spice-scented trash bags in September, as scheduled. These companies respect the established rhythm of seasons and refrain from jumping the gun on fall-related products.
The arrival of fall food and beverages has been steadily advancing earlier each year. Companies are driven by profitability, consumer demand, and research indicating the flexibility of timing for fall-themed items. Starbucks, the pioneer of the pumpkin spice trend, has been at the forefront of early fall releases. However, other establishments have joined in, competing for consumer attention. While some consumers eagerly embrace the early arrival of fall menus, others prefer to wait for temperatures to cool down before indulging. Despite the growing trend of early fall releases, there are still companies that stick to the traditional boundaries of the seasons, ensuring that fall flavors remain reserved for the appropriate time.