Twelve years after Starbucks poured its first Pumpkin Spice Latte, the humble pumpkin has become a cultural force too divisive to ignore.
The deeply polarizing autumnal squash has, depending on whom you ask, become either one of America’s most celebrated symbols of fall or an inescapable menace in a bright orange shell.
But lost in the cultural debate has been the pumpkin’s ascendance to unstoppable financial juggernaut. Once consigned to pie fillings and craft beers, the pumpkin now presides over a sprawling empire spanning nearly every grocery aisle, including pumpkin-flavored pet treats, baby food, tobacco, cheese, soda, hummus, tortilla chips, vodka and soy milk.
Sales of pumpkin-flavored anything-and-everything soared to more than $360 million for the year ending this July, up 11 percent over the previous year and 80 percent since 2011, data from industry researcher Nielsen shows.
And “not only are sales increasing,” said Jen Campuzano, director of Nielsen Perishables Group, “consumers are spending more per household, and increasing their trips for these types of products.”
The flavor of money
The makers of pumpkin-flavored foods and other goodies have solidly proved they are more moneymaker than joke. Sales of pumpkin-flavored dog food surged past $12 million in the last year, up from about $2 million last year, while even niche wares like pumpkin-flavored pasta sauces, chewing gum and peanut butter all sold about $1 million each.
Pumpkin baked goods have long been a quintessential American tradition. In a 1936 recipe introducing “spice cake of pumpkin,” The Washington Post said the wife of famed pumpkin-eater Peter “would have been a voluntary ‘stay at home’ if some of this delicious cake were always to be found in her larder.”
But pumpkin’s true preeminence as a high-selling seasonal staple didn’t reveal itself until within the past five years, when the massive popularity of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte, the coffee chain’s “most popular seasonal beverage of all time,” spurred food makers of all stripes to attempt their own pumpkin lines.
Planters and Pringles have sold massive runs of pumpkin spice almonds and potato chips, while Yoplait now advertises a Greek yogurt “packed full of . . . pumpkin seeds.” Petco sells a Harvest Sunrise Chicken & Pumpkin cat food that a reviewer said makes “my cats go crazy with anticipation when I open a can.”
Pumpkin’s spread to consumer pantries has also been fueled by its growing foothold in American restaurants, where gourmet chefs are increasingly presenting it as an earthy accouterment in soups and risottos, and fast-casual eateries in Starbucks’ shadow are selling things like Pumpkin Muffies. One in 10 nationwide eateries now has pumpkin somewhere on its menu, data from industry researcher Technomic shows.
That partly explains why Starbucks, the patient zero of the pumpkin outbreak, has sought to reinvent itself in a world gone orange, announcing last month that its Pumpkin Spice Latte would swap out the caramel coloring for a “pumpkin spice flavored sauce” made of sugar, preservatives and real pumpkin puree.
The rapid spread has led to “pumpkin creep,” as food makers and drink giants unveil their pumpkin creations earlier in the year to win over fans and beat out rivals. Pumpkin Spice Lattes returned to Starbucks’ U.S. and Canadian cafes Tuesday, two full weeks before the start of autumn.
Pumpkin has surged to power in a way that pecan pie, salted caramel and the rest of the autumnal melange has not, and analysts point to how corporate marketing now equates the vegetable with the warm and fuzzy nostalgia of changing leaves and crisp fall air.
Pumpkin-flavored foods have also benefited from the vegetable’s sizable “halo effect,” which has helped frame its accompanying foods as fresh and healthy — even when they offer highly questionable nutritious merit.
But pumpkin has also gained ground among food manufacturers for its rawer qualities. After years of strong sales for its pumpkin-flavored kibble, pet-food firm Weruva last year expanded its offerings with Pumpkin Patch Up!, a pureed pumpkin supplement for dogs and cats served in a small pouch.
Made from pumpkins grown in Thailand, the fiber-heavy treats are marketed more as “happy belly makers” and less for their seasonal charm. “It’s not exactly like having Advil in your cabinet, but it’s very similar,” said David Forman, the founder of Weruva. In pet stores, it is sold near signs that say “Farty Dog? Get Pumpkin.”
What about pumpkins?
Amid all these new products catering to the cold-weather veggie’s wonder, the genuine raw pumpkin in grocery stores is actually selling worse and worse. Sales of fresh pumpkins at supermarkets and other retailers have fallen almost every year since 2010, Nielsen data shows, though that doesn’t factor in sales at roadside pumpkin patches, which are woefully underreported.
That’s perhaps because real pumpkin, even accounting for all the manufacturing progress needed to spread its flavoring far and wide, remains a dense and stringy squash rarely served without a heavy helping of cinnamon, cloves and other spices.
“The weird thing about pumpkin’s rise to baconlike ubiquity,” New York Magazine said in 2012, “is that pumpkin, on its own, is not a very appetizing food at all.”
The pumpkin-spice blowback has been swift and intense. Comedian John Oliver said Starbucks’ seasonal lattes “taste like a candle tastes” and are made from bottles of “pumpkin-flavored science goo that sits behind the counter of Starbucks all year round, never aging, like Ryan Seacrest.”
Even fans of the vegetable have questioned whether the squash has gone too far. “I like pumpkin just fine,” famed chef Anthony Bourdain told People magazine recently. “But I can’t think of the last time I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘You know what? I could really go for some pumpkin.’ “
In a time when Etsy sellers are promoting their own Pumpkin Spice shampoo and conditioner sets, analysts are beginning to question when exactly America might hit Peak Pumpkin. But as the air begins to cool, few businesses are showing they’re worried over a squash backlash anytime soon.
“My guess is it would have to plateau at some point, as it moves from a trend to a mainstream product,” said Campuzano of Nielsen. But, “we don’t see anything that would say it’s going to suddenly disappear.”