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Why stop at pumpkin spice lattes? Starbucks, Panera Bread push fall flavors like apple, cinnamon crunch and ginger chai

By Charles Passy

Move over, PSL: We try the non-pumpkin offerings from Starbucks and Panera Bread, as pumpkin spice 'has given up some of the spotlight'

Is apple crisp or cinnamon crunch becoming the new pumpkin spice? What about ginger-spiced chai?

Those are the questions I asked when I started seeing the fall menus of various coffee-centric chains this year, including, of course, Starbucks (SBUX), the company that gave us the pumpkin spice latte almost 20 years ago. Tuesday marks the return of Starbucks' signature fall beverage -- or the PSL, as fans simply refer to it.

But if you stop at any Starbucks, as I did this morning, you'll see the company is also pushing its apple crisp macchiato, which it introduced last year but has tweaked slightly for 2022 (it's now made with oatmilk).

And Panera Bread is going one step further: Not only has it largely banished pumpkin from its fall menus, but it is also rolling out a cinnamon crunch latte this year -- a play on the chain's ever-popular bagel variety -- as a pumpkin-spice alternative.

"We knew our guests were craving something beyond the pumpkin-spice flavor craze," Panera Bread vice president Drayton Martin told MarketWatch.

Does this mean that pumpkin is passé? Not exactly. The coffee chains are still making the pumpkin push. Dunkin' is building a whole "Team Pumpkin" campaign to celebrate the rollout of its fall pumpkin-themed beverages (new this year: nutty pumpkin coffee). Starbucks says it sees year-over-year increases in its PSL sales -- and the company notes that it has sold more than 600 million PSLs since the launch of the drink in 2003.

But what is clearly happening, coffee-chain insiders and industry experts say, is that the success of the PSL is now leading to a broader push for what could be termed "fall flavors." In short, why stop at pumpkin?

Or, as restaurant analyst Mark Kalinowski says, pumpkin spice "has given up some of the spotlight."

Indeed, you'll find other chains pushing all manner of fall beverages. Caribou Coffee has its hot apple blast. Café Grumpy, a New York chain, is offering ginger-spiced chai and matcha cider this year.

So, what do the non-pumpkin fall drinks taste like? I tried the Starbucks' Apple Crisp oatmilk macchiato and the Panera Bread cinnamon crunch latte (the latter is officially available chain-wide on Sept. 1, but some select locations already have it). In both cases, they deliver much of what you expect from the PSL -- that is, a mouthful of sweetness and spice, with a pronounced emphasis on the former. It's really more a cup of coffee as dessert than coffee as your morning pick-me-up.

I'd give the advantage to Starbucks in that the apple flavor comes through in a tart, interesting way -- and I think the drink benefits from the oatmilk in that it adds a kind of velvety smoothness. But I'd be lying if I said I'd ever order this again: I want coffee that tastes like, well, coffee, not a fruit I'd pick on a weekend fall outing.

With Panera Bread, the drink is just a bit much -- as in, too much cinnamon, too much sugar, even too much whipped cream. And it's difficult to deliver the chewy satisfaction that is the cinnamon crunch bagel in liquid form.

It's hard to imagine these drinks overtaking the PSL in popularity. But that's probably not the point. They're there to expand upon the idea of how to capture a season in the form of a beverage.

As it is, I'm not a fan of the PSL either -- it's also too sweet for my taste, although Starbucks has always emphasized you can adjust the levels of sugar to your preference. But I'm still likely to stick with plain ol' joe as my pick. It's a pretty good beverage to enjoy in the fall -- or any time of the year.

-Charles Passy


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

08-30-22 1304ET

Copyright (c) 2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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