CORRECTION APPENDEDDURING Thanksgiving week, the aroma of pumpkin pie wafts throughout the land, as it has for generations. But these days, chances are the source of the smell is not actually pie.
While Starbucks, now serving its seasonal pumpkin spice latte for the ninth year, is often credited with helping popularize the flavor, pumpkin spice has spread to myriad categories.
There were 79 limited-time menu items featuring pumpkin at the top 250 restaurant chains from August through October, more than double the 37 during the same period in 2011, according to Technomic, a restaurant market research firm.
Those dishes included pumpkin bagels at Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, pumpkin ale at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse and pumpkin spice pancakes at Shoney’s.
”Pumpkin,” a New York magazine headline declared in October, ”is the new bacon.”
Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, said comfort foods often influenced flavor trends.
”That familiarity and comfort feel is something that I think Americans are clinging to because the economy has been rough on many of us,” Mr. Tristano said, adding that such foods represented ”a nice, simple pleasure and an affordable indulgence.”
It may not occur to a diner at McDonald’s washing down pumpkin pie with a pumpkin shake or pumpkin spice latte, but flavor trends are not cooked up by food brands alone. Companies that specialize in flavors often are the instigators.
Dianne Sansone, a flavor chemist and head of technical services at Flavor and Fragrances Specialties, which is based in Mahwah, N.J., said the company first developed a pumpkin spice flavor in the early 1990s for a coffee brand, well before use of the flavor became widespread. Nondisclosure agreements prohibit the company from naming customers, but its Web site says they include both ”Fortune 100” and ”middle market” companies.
Typically food brands provide a base, like unflavored ice cream or yogurt, and in a subsequent presentation Flavor and Fragrances serves company representatives samples to demonstrate how a flavor like pumpkin spice tastes in their product.
What companies end up buying is not just a recipe, but a physical product as well.
”We send out 400-pound drums of flavor that go into things like coffee and cupcakes and cookie filling,” Ms. Sansone said.
Yoplait, a General Mills brand, asked consumers on its Facebook page in 2011 for new flavor preferences, and as a result introduced Yoplait Light pumpkin pie yogurt as a seasonal flavor this year.
Elizabeth Fulmer, associate marketing manager of Yoplait, said sales of the flavor far exceeded expectations.
”We didn’t know how big it was going to be,” she said. ”We did this as a little bit of an experiment this year and the response has been really exciting.”
Planters, a Kraft Foods brand, introduced pumpkin spice almonds as a seasonal flavor in 2011, the same year that Jet-Puffed marshmallows, another Kraft brand, introduced a pumpkin spice variety.
Through a licensing agreement, Unilever introduced Starbucks pumpkin spice latte ice cream as a seasonal variety this year. It is, in other words, an ice cream based on a coffee drink that was based on a pie. Another Unilever ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry’s, has marketed a seasonal pumpkin cheesecake flavor for several years.
Hiram Walker introduced pumpkin spice liqueur, a seasonal offering, in 2007, when the flavor ”was popular within coffee but not as widespread as it is today,” said Juli Falkoff, a brand manager at the company, which is a Pernod Ricard USA brand. ”I feel like this season it’s really pumpkin spice time — it’s everywhere you look.”
It may seem paradoxical, but pumpkin spice products often lack a pumpkin note, connoting instead spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and clove that are sold as the pumpkin pie blend in spice aisles.
Coffee brands, among the first to introduce pumpkin spice flavors in products that are not baked, continue to experience strong demand.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which introduced a seasonal pumpkin spice coffee in 2001, has in recent years begun selling it in early August instead of later in the month because of pent-up demand.
Derek Archambault, senior brand manager at Green Mountain, says that in the first week it is sold each year, it often is the best-selling flavored coffee and occasionally the best-selling roast overall.
Along with Starbucks pumpkin spice latte ice cream, the company introduced an instant coffee version of the flavor this year under its Via line. When some stores, primarily in Manhattan, ran out of what Starbucks calls the sauce used to flavor the pumpkin spice latte in October, a flurry of panicked messages from fans appeared on Twitter and Facebook.
Lisa Passé, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said there was never an actual shortage because warehouses remained well stocked. Rather, she said, individual stores had ”outages” for a day or two because of the popularity of the flavor.
”This year we saw such increased demand that it’s in the running to be the No. 1 seasonal flavor for the entire year,” said Ms. Passé. In recent years, she added, the top seasonal flavor was peppermint mocha, a winter item.
But some recently released products flavored with pumpkin pie spice have left consumers scratching their heads.
One such offering came from the Kellogg brand Pringles, which introduced a seasonal variety of its stackable potato chips this month that is available only at Walmart.
”Pumpkin Spice Pringles?” the Twitter user @emptychampagne wrote, expressing a sentiment echoed by many on social networks and blogs. ”I give up. There is no hope for the future. None.”
Correction: November 27, 2012, Tuesday
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The Advertising column on Thursday, about the increasing popularity of seasonal food products with a pumpkin spice flavor, misstated the corporate affiliation of Yoplait yogurt. It is a General Mills brand; it is not part of General Foods.
Food marketers have embraced the pumpkin spice flavor. Kraft introduced a pumpkin spice version of its Jet-Puffed marshmallows, and Ben & Jerry’s has Pumpkin Cheesecake ice cream.
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