The student news site of Bak Middle School of the Arts


The student news site of Bak Middle School of the Arts


The student news site of Bak Middle School of the Arts


The Father of Pumpkin Spice: Peter Dukes

How the famed fall beverage came to be
Photo courtesy of Peter Dukes
For twenty years, the pumpkin-spiced latte has served as a staple of the fall season and a powerful asset for Starbucks. Peter Dukes, the creator of the famed latte, still reflects on the days before its creation. “When we were first conceptualizing the idea of the drink, pumpkin spice or pumpkin-flavored products weren’t even an idea. In this day and age, you could probably fill two whole grocery aisles with pumpkin spice products,” Dukes said.

In shades of blue, yellow, purple and pink, the vivid flowers of spring blossomed as the faint glow of the February sun shined its light upon the quiet city of Seattle in the year 2003. Although, its god-like rays missed one of the most highly renowned local spots of Seattle: Starbucks. Working tirelessly, the partners (employees) of the Product Development Laboratory, more commonly referred to as “The Liquid Lab,” were bombarded by the lively decorations of pumpkins and corn husks that garnished the walls of the seventh floor.

On the front lines of product innovation, Peter Dukes, a product manager for Starbucks at the time, could be seen wrangling the efforts of a small group of partners who were managing what was considered an underwhelming project: a fall-flavored, handcrafted beverage. Faced with diminishing support and waning public approval, Dukes made sure to put forth his best hand when conceptualizing and executing the creation of the highly sought after pumpkin spice latte.

“Nobody in that room, who helped with developing it, would have ever thought it would become what it has today,” Dukes said. “The time we were first developing it, 20 years ago, if you were to walk down a grocery aisle, the only pumpkin products you would find would be pumpkin purée and pumpkin pies.”

Even though the pumpkin spice latte is now recognized as a cornerstone of Starbucks and a staple of the fall season, it would come as a surprise to people today that the beverage, with such a cult following, was originally unendorsed by the public and was generally overshadowed by alternative flavor options.

“When the idea first came up, we decided to test it by creating paper concepts where we described the beverage: a steam-milked drink mixed with a shot of espresso and pumpkin sauce, topped with whipped cream and some pumpkin pie topping. We then asked customers what their reaction would be to a pumpkin-flavored beverage and nine others,” Dukes said. “We asked them two questions: how likely are you to buy this beverage and how unique it is. Unsurprisingly, the score for the pumpkin spice latte was low—in fact, the lowest—but the uniqueness score was very high.”

Like the beauty of a blossoming spring flower, the uniqueness of the pumpkin spice latte did not stand out at first, combating initial negative perception offered by Starbucks customers about their willingness to purchase the product. However, seeing its strong potential, Dukes and his team decided to march forward with their efforts of pioneering a drink that the world did not know they desperately needed.

“With our results, it was time to develop the real beverage in what we call the Liquid Lab at Starbucks. Our research and development team and our food scientist started to combine these iconic flavors by pouring shots of espresso over different types of pumpkin pie to see which ones tasted the best. This was the first time that these two flavors were ever really tried together, and we were pleasantly surprised to figure out that they were a perfect match,” Dukes said.

Now, with the basis of the beverage complete, Dukes and his team decided to advance it into the more intense and stringent trials, where the first predecessor of the famed pumpkin spice latte would be forged.

“Through experiments we realized that unlike most drinks that the pumpkin spice latte needs more of a body. This meant that instead of a syrup, the pumpkin spice latte needed a thicker pumpkin sauce,” Dukes said. “After having our rough draft we had a lot of tastings. There were six or seven of us who went in twice a week to taste different variations of the drink.”

Although the product was far from complete, Duke’s team confidently trekked forward in their journey with their newly approved hand-crafted beverage. Proud and encouraged, they now faced the court of public opinion, whose judgment typically comes hard and fast.

“We tasted up to 40 different types of pumpkin spice lattes with different variations of sweetness, spices and pumpkin flavoring,” Dukes said. “After we had our prototype done, we decided to pressure test customers, so we can get their honest reaction to the drink.”

Even with its most modest beginnings, ten years later the pumpkin spice latte still stands out like grandma’s fall pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving table. With its deeply-flavored familiar taste, it now delights millions of customers of every age and background across the globe. For students akin to Leyla Yazar, eighth grade visual arts major, this sensation is profoundly felt.

“The pumpkin spice latte brings me a feeling of happiness and warmth when I drink it and reminds me of my favorite season of the year: fall,” Yazar said. “It comes out at certain times of the year, which also makes you appreciate it and enjoy it more before it leaves.”

For many other students, the uniqueness of the drink drives their appreciation for the famed beverage that serves as a staple of the fall season.

“I enjoy the pumpkin spiced latte because of its unique flavors that really stand it out between other drinks,” Julian Roude, seventh grade theater major said.

In its rush of popularity, customers and fans of the famed drink have used their own creativity to give the drink its own personality, which is something Dukes embraces.

“I love that at this moment, the pumpkin spice latte has really taken on its own personality, with popularity, social media and really between people,” Dukes said. “It really brings a smile to my face when I see people get creative with the drink and let its own personality really flourish and bring joy to people.”

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