"Father" of the Pumpkin Spice Latte says "it was the flavor that almost wasn't"

·4 min read

Peter Dukes is credited with being the man behind the coffee confection that came to define a whole season: Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte. It all began in the company's Seattle headquarters in 2001.

"You are the father of PSL?" CBS News' Michelle Miller asked, referring to the beverage.

"That's what some say. Yes," said Dukes.

Dukes is now the director of Global Growth and Concepts. But he was once in charge of espresso drinks for the company. Fresh off the holiday success of Starbucks' Peppermint Mocha, Dukes and other employees were asked to create a drink for the fall season.

"So we came up with a hundred different ideas and whittled it down to ten," said Dukes. "We had about 500 customers look at these ten concepts. When we got back the results, chocolate, and caramel, 'Oh, yeah, I'll buy that, for sure.' Cinnamon, solid, pretty well. This is something that people don't know or are not aware of. Pumpkin Spice Latte never had a chance that it was going to get to prototype."

"So what you're saying, it was the flavor that almost wasn't?" asked Miller.

"It was the flavor that almost wasn't. And what saved it was it was a unique beverage," said Dukes. "What we didn't know at that time was whether or not it was something that our customers would wanna try."

Peter Dukes is the inventor of Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte. / Credit: Peter Dukes
Peter Dukes is the inventor of Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte. / Credit: Peter Dukes

So making that winning flavor would be no piece of cake, although it did involve a slice of something else.

"We brought in pumpkin pies into our R&D lab and actually just poured shots of espresso on 'em, and ate 'em," said Dukes.

For 18 years, customers have been eating them up with more than 500 million sold since their 2003 debut.

"This probably is something that psychology and economics and marketing classes could be studying for ages," said Dr. Catherine Franssen of the Science Museum of Virginia.

She believes that all that success comes down to science.

"Pumpkin spice has the ability to really reach into the center of our memories at a very emotional level," said Franssen. "At the core of that is sugar. We actually encode the memories of what's associated with the sugar. For example, the smell of pumpkin spice."

But the high sugar content also drove complaints from health-conscious consumers, along with the original recipe's use of artificial flavors and the absence of real pumpkin.

"I think it spurred us to think a little bit harder of how we could even make it better," said Thomas Prather, Starbucks' vice president of Brand and Product Marketing. Prather said this led to a recipe change in 2015.

Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte got a recipe change in 2015 / Credit: Starbucks
Starbucks' Pumpkin Spice Latte got a recipe change in 2015 / Credit: Starbucks

"I think it actually woke up the industry a bit to look inside and say, 'How can we have cleaner ingredients? How can we be more innovative in what we're delivering to our customers?' and it pushed us all forward," said Prather.

The new recipe increased its popularity; PSL got its own Twitter handle and an official Instagram account in 2015. Two years later, Starbucks live-streamed the early arrival of its PSL, which debuted in late August. It logged more than 8 million hits.

"PSL brought fun to coffee and brought people that weren't purists into the café culture," said Pather.

"Fun to coffee?" asked Miller.

"Yeah. So if you think about coffee before PSL, in the early 2000s, it was you had a cappuccino. Or you had some just a doppio espresso," replied Prather. " And once we started making it more approachable, people started kind of thinking of it, 'This is more than just a utilitarian drink that I'm going to get before work."

The drink has led to a profusion of products, including seasonal beverages and the expansion of its spaces like the Reserve Bar and bistro in select cities.

"Would all of this be possible if not for PSL, Pumpkin Spice Latte?" asked Miller.

"I think Pumpkin Spice Latte and the success of that gave us the confidence that we can do whatever we wanted to do with coffee," said Prather.

"It took off to a whole other level that, again, nobody ever could have predicted," Dukes said.

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