Inside the rise of pumpkin spice – the millennial obsession that everyone loves to hate

pumpkin spice
  • It’s that time of year: pumpkin spice season is here.
  • Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte kicked off a pumpkin spice economy, with millennials leading the way.
  • Love it or hate it, pumpkin spice is a cultural icon here to stay thanks to the power of exclusivity and nostalgia.

Syrup. Fig Bars. Hot Chocolate. Pancakes.

They’re all part of the pumpkin spice economy that famously began with Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL). Whether you love it or love to hate it, what was once a trend has become a fall icon.

Since introducing the PSL in 2003, the coffee chain had sold 424 million PSLs worldwide as of 2019. Starting at $5.25 a cup, that’s more than $2.2 billion in revenue. Such success has sparked copycat lattes by competitors like Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, pumpkin spice-flavored products at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, and even non-food pumpkin spice items like candles and hand sanitizer, transforming the flavor into both a $500 million annual industry and a season.

Starbucks pumpkin spice latte
Starbucks’ famous Pumpkin Spice Latte started it all.

But pumpkin spice didn’t really become a phenomenon until the last decade. As digital savvy consumers took to Twitter and Instagram to share their affinity for the PSL, it quickly gained a reputation as the autumnal version of avocado toast for millennials.

Dozens of articles, hundreds of memes, and thousands of Tweets associated the PSL with a “basic” white girl millennial. Look no further than the PSL’s shoutout in Bustle’s “How to Spot a Basic Bitch” or even millennials mocking themselves with Tweets like “common white girl #PSL.”

Hating on the pumpkin spice trend had become a trend of its own. Some have even called the demise of pumpkin spice as far back as 2015, but six years later, it’s retained a powerful foothold in the autumnal lexicon. For all the stereotypes millennials get for the PSL, they propelled a food revolution with a broad appeal that has become deeply embedded in American culture.

A picture-perfect drink is born

Pumpkin spice – typically a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and cloves – has actually been around for over two centuries. It first appeared in a “pompkin” pie recipe featured in a 1798 reprint of “American Cookery.” By the 1930s, spice manufacturing companies like McCormick had introduced their own blends.

But Starbucks ushered in a whole new era. Director of Espresso Peter Dukes was on a mission to recreate the success of Starbucks’ limited edition winter drinks like Peppermint Mocha for fall. He thought he found something special because “there wasn’t anything around pumpkin at the time,” he told The Daily Meal back in 2013.

They rolled the PSL out as a test at 100 stores in 2003, debuting it nationwide in 2004. That October, company sales increased by 11% compared to the year prior thanks in large part to the PSL, according to local publication SeattleMet. But it was social media advancements in the 2010s that really made pumpkin spice blow up.

Starbucks was targeting the social-media-using millennial with disposable income, Kara Nielsen, director of food and drink at trend forecasting company WGSN, told Insider. As part of this strategy, it launched an official Twitter account and Instagram for the PSL.

A post shared by Diana🍂 (@kaleidoscopiccmind)

Past generations didn’t grow up with Starbucks, Nielsen added, and millennials were frequenting Starbucks and developing a latte habit. They also had started carrying around phones and proven themselves to be consumers interested in trying new things. “This wasn’t the target of a coffee connoisseur really looking forward to an exceptional coffee experience,” she said.

Millennials easily succumbed to the magic of a limited time offer, which created a sense of urgency and exclusivity. While this marketing strategy is a popular tactic, Nielsen said, it was especially enticing to young adults who would post pictures of themselves enjoying the PSL on social media. This publicized pumpkin spice, making it even more of a frenzy.

And so the pumpkin spice economy was born, all from a flavored special drink that Nielsen says has become part of many people’s identity and part of a seasonal performance.

The power of comfort and nostalgia

Nearly 20 years later, the novelty factor of pumpkin spice is long gone. The appeal now lies in a sense of comfort.

This dates back to the 2008 financial crisis, when pumpkin became part of the comfort food trend of the Great Recession. It was during the recession’s recovery that it began to move into “a more experimental realm,” Suzy Badaracco, a chef who runs food trend forecasting company Culinary Tides, told Vox back in 2014.

It’s popularity hasn’t always been consistent, seeming to have peaked in 2017, according to Google search trends. But Nielsen said the pandemic has only strengthened pumpkin spice’s comfort attribute, cementing it as a permanent fixture in American society. Returning to pre-pandemic routines like picking up a PSL on a crisp fall morning, she said, gives people a sense of normalcy that they’re so desperately craving.

That comfort is linked to nostalgia, which people have been seeking during the pandemic. Recent research from Johns Hopkins University found that pumpkin spice’s popularity lies in its smell, which is the strongest sense to trigger powerful memories. The scent of pumpkin spice evokes cozy, autumnal memories. Even knowing that your drink or food is pumpkin spice revs up the brain, telling it to anticipate the smell and helping us perceive the taste more distinctly.

Jason Fischer, a JHU professor of psychological and brain sciences and one of the researchers behind the study, told Insider that nostalgia for pumpkin spice is stronger than other flavor and aroma combinations because of the “whimsical feeling of familiarity” that it summons up. It’s a “feeling that has been built up over the years as pumpkin spice products emerge to mark the change of the season,” he said.

Fischer noted that the perception of pumpkin spice as a millennial drink may be based more on a social narrative than actual buying habits. But nostalgia could be more potent for the generation, he added, since science shows we form stronger associations between odors and memories earlier in life.

“For someone who has spent a large portion of their life experiencing the seasonal pumpkin spice craze year after year, the link between pumpkin spice and fond memories of fall is bound to be especially strong,” he said.

What began as a millennial drink has ultimately become a cultural marker both beloved and reviled, that’s launched an entire industry and a more experiential food economy. Nielsen said pumpkin spice has added to the richness of American food culture in a way that didn’t exist 20 years ago, with brands working to create unique, seasonal flavors like spiced pear or salted maple.

As for pumpkin spice itself, Nielsen said, “It may not always be the most popular, but it’s place in history is secure.”

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Starbucks baristas say they’ve been asked to make blue drinks based on a Facebook and TikTok prank. Some speculate the pranksters used cleaning fluid or Gatorade to achieve the blue hue.

The exterior of a Starbucks store in Hong Kong
The mystery bright blue drinks aren’t on Starbucks’ menu.

  • Starbucks baristas say they’ve been asked to make strange blue drinks that aren’t on the menu.
  • Customers referred to them as the “tropical drink,” “tropical refresher,” and “forbidden refresher.”
  • The drinks are almost certainly based on a prank that surfaced on Facebook and TikTok.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Starbucks baristas have been mystified by requests to make bright blue drinks known as the “tropical drink,” “tropical refresher,” and “forbidden refresher.”

The drinks have a few things in common, current and former baristas told Insider. One, they all appear to share the same blue hue. Two, they’re not on the menu. Three, their color can’t be achieved with any of the chain’s usual ingredients.

And four, they’re almost certainly based on a prank that surfaced on Facebook and TikTok.

Four current and former Starbucks workers told Insider that customers had asked them to make one of these three blue drinks. Some said customers had shown them TikTok videos of the drinks. Three others said that customers hadn’t requested the drinks but that they’d heard about them through social media.

But what of the blue color?

Most Starbucks staff who’d come across the drinks speculated that the blue hue could only be achieved with Urnex, a cleaning fluid used on coffee-making equipment. A current barista in New York suggested the color might come from blue Gatorade.

A spokesperson for Starbucks said: “This is not a real drink and not available in our stores. We have rigorous food safety procedures in place of which use of a chemical in a beverage violates these standards. We are not aware of any incidents in which a customer was intentionally or unintentionally served one of these beverages.”

Gary Ladewig, a former Starbucks barista in Illinois, described the blue drink as the “Urnex refresher.” He told Insider that it originated in a Facebook group for Starbucks baristas that isn’t affiliated with the company.

Ladewig said it was “just a joke that happened on one of the Starbucks Facebook pages” before getting leaked onto TikTok. No customer had asked him to make the drink, he added.

The prank blue drinks seem to poke fun at the craze of customers asking Starbucks baristas to recreate elaborate, customized beverages that appear on TikTok. Sometimes the drinks can’t actually be made, and staff have to explain that they might be pranks, baristas said.

In one TikTok video purporting to promote the blue drink, a customer appears to arrive at a Starbucks drive-thru and ask for a “tropical refresher.” After a jump cut, a Starbucks employee hands the customer a bright blue iced drink. After another jump cut, the customer shows the label, which indicates that the drink is a “Vt Strbry Acai Rfr.”

In the space on the label that usually lists drink specifications and modifications, it simply says “Tropical Refresher.” (Starbucks does sell a line of Refresher branded cold drinks, including a Strawberry Açai Refresher, but none of these drinks are blue.)

One TikTok user commented that they didn’t think this was a real drink. The user speculated: “This is most likely Urnex (starbucks cleaning product) and water lmao.”

Another user commented: “This doesn’t exist. They trollin [sic] you. Don’t be that person. Starbucks has no drink that is blue. 5 and half yr Starbucks partner here.”

Insider obtained footage of a TikTok video that no longer appears online. In the video, a Starbucks worker shows off a bright blue drink and says: “Have y’all tried the new tropical refresher? It’s blue.”

A comment on the TikTok video says: “I remembered seeing a a [sic] picture of iced urnex which is also blue so after my shift I searched on tik tok ‘tropical drink’. They wanted iced cleaner lol.”

The footage was shared in a private Facebook group for current and former Starbucks baristas. One member of the group told Insider: “The posts in the Facebook group are just inside jokes among baristas, [none] of us are trying to promote these things to customers. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for the TikToks though.”

Nat El-Hai, a former Starbucks barista in Beverly Hills, suggested that the fake blue tropical drink probably originated from a barista who posted it on TikTok as a joke. El-Hai told Insider that several customers had ordered what they called “the tropical drink” and said they’d come across it on TikTok.

One barista said that customers sometimes got “frustrated” when told that the “tropical drink” wasn’t real. Some customers “accuse us of lying or withholding product from them,” the barista said.

Do you work at Starbucks? Got a story to share? Email this reporter at Always use a non-work phone.

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An Ohio Starbucks is so short staffed that it’s cutting hours and closing 2 days a week

  • A Starbucks in Ohio is closing down two days a week because it doesn’t have enough workers.
  • The restaurant industry is struggling to keep businesses open.
  • Some businesses have used other strategies to cope with labor shortages, like not serving breakfast.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

An Ohio Starbucks joined the list of restaurants around the country cutting hours and closing dining rooms as they struggle to hire and keep on workers.

The Starbucks at 28053 Chagrin Boulevard in Windmere, Ohio, closed its dining room to operate only through the drive-thru, Cleveland Jewish News reported on September 30. Hours were limited to 6 am to 6 pm on Saturdays and Sundays, and to 5 am to 2 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. The location is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, an employee confirmed to Insider over the phone.

Like other quick-service restaurants, Starbucks has been facing shortages in staffers periodically throughout the country. Local leaders have the authority to reduce hours and adjust operations to meet the needs of their particular store, Starbucks told Insider, as this location did to respond to the staffing issues.

Restaurants around the country are facing the same challenges. Business owners say they’re unable to find staff and in some cases even cite a lack of desire to work, while workers say they can demand better pay and benefits in the tight labor market, and they don’t want to work in dangerous conditions for low pay. As a result, fast-food chains are having to adjust hours or only operate drive-thrus as they face a lack of staff to keep restaurants running.

Local restaurant operators are adopting different tactics to minimize losses. Two Chick-fil-A restaurants in Los Angeles have stopped serving breakfast because of a lack of workers and “supply chain challenges,” to reduce complexity for workers. Other chains are temporarily closing dining rooms or cutting hours without enough staff to keep them open. Two more Chick-fil-A locations in northern Alabama have started closing early because of “extremely short staffing,” Grace Dean reported for Insider.

Two campus Starbucks locations at the University of Alabama temporarily closed dining rooms due to “limited staff and supply chain challenges,” The Crimson White reported.

Three more Chick-fil-A restaurants in Alabama had to close their dining rooms over lack of staff, though they continued to make food for delivery.

According to restaurant operators surveyed by National Restaurant Association, 78% said that didn’t have enough workers to handle business, and 61% of fast-food restaurants said that they decided to shut parts of dining rooms in August because they didn’t have the workers to serve those areas.

“It’s really tough times for staffing,” Kalinowski Equity founder Mark Kalinowski previously told Insider. Restaurant workers continue to quit the industry at record rates, moving to jobs where they don’t have to interact with angry customers.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at

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I ordered food from 5 different brands in a stark white room inside a suburban Walmart and I’m convinced it’s probably the future of fast food

Walmart Ghost Kitchen signs
The first US Ghost Kitchen in a Walmart just opened.

  • I visited the first Ghost Kitchens restaurant in a New York Walmart.
  • Ghost kitchen companies have exploded over the last year and a half as delivery grew.
  • Virtual restaurants cut down on labor and real estate costs, making them appealing to owners.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As part of my job as a retail reporter, I eat a lot of fast food. I even do a lot of in-app ordering and contactless pickups, but nothing prepared me for eating in Ghost Kitchens’ first Walmart location in Rochester, New York.

The restaurant is basically a large, open space with white walls and little else. A TV cycled through ads for the brands served by Ghost Kitchens, and acted as the focal point simply because there was nothing else, besides a trash can and larger ads on the windows. It was unlike any other restaurant I’d ever been in. In fact, it reminded me of a doctor’s office waiting room more than anything else I could think of – though it didn’t have seating.

Ghost Kitchens’ concept strips a fast food business down to only the most basic elements. Orders are made through large touch screens located throughout the room, requiring no direct interaction between customers and workers. Several dozen brands’ worth of menus come out of the same kitchen, which had five workers at the time of my visit. The lack of tables, napkins, condiments, and other things customary at the average McDonald’s make it apparent that customers are not meant to linger or eat their food there. That’s another way to cut down on costs – workers don’t need to dedicate time to cleaning tables, mopping floors, or restocking ketchup.

Walmart Ghost Kitchen
The first US Ghost Kitchen in a Walmart just opened.

Ghost kitchens, also known as cloud kitchens or virtual concepts, are only becoming more relevant as several big players compete in the growing sector. Reef Technology, which just signed an agreement to open up 700 ghost kitchens with Wendy’s, builds mobile kitchens in parking lots and garages to make food for delivery with fast food partners. It’s the largest of these operations in North America, with 5,000 locations.

CloudKitchens, from Uber founder Travis Kalanick, has deals with some well-known brands, including Chick-fil-A, Wingstop, and Noodles and Company. Other competitors, like Kitchen United, All Day Kitchens, and Ghost Kitchen brand, which I visited, are also growing.

Ghost kitchens exploded during the early days of COVID-19, when brands scrambled to set up delivery infrastructure and recoup some of the sales lost by dining room closures. Now, more than a year into a still-raging pandemic, they make sense for a different reason: they don’t require as many workers.

Restaurants across the country, from full service to fast food, are having trouble hiring and retaining workers to keep business going. Some Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’, and other chain locations have tested out short-term solutions like cutting hours, closing dining rooms, or cutting off service of certain meals. A survey of restaurant operators from the National Restaurant Association found that 78% said that they don’t have enough workers to handle business, and 75% said their biggest problem was finding staff.

Market research firm Euromonitor predicts that the ghost kitchen segment could be a $1 trillion industry by 2030.

“Labor savings are no doubt a big benefit driving the growth of this segment,” senior analyst at Pitchbook Alex Frederick told Restaurant Dive. But, “brick-and-mortar restaurants have evolved to maximize dine-in floor space and minimize kitchen space in an effort to maximize profits. Most restaurants aren’t optimized for delivery,” he said.

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It’s National Coffee Day, and that means you can get free coffee at Starbucks, Dunkin’, 7-Eleven, and Panera

Starbucks reusable cup
  • Wednesday is National Coffee Day, and that means free coffee at many chains across the US.
  • Panera is offering parents and caregivers unlimited free coffee all day to celebrate.
  • Here are the 10 best National Coffee Day deals at Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and more.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Starbucks: bring your own cup

This year’s national coffee day coincides with Starbucks’ 50th anniversary. Bring a reusable cup (up to 20 ounces) to participating locations for a free pour of Pike Place Roast coffee, available hot or over ice. The offer is only available at Starbucks Cafes and excludes drive-thru or in-app purchases.

Starbucks Reserve Roasteries in Seattle, Chicago, New York City, and Starbucks Reserve Stores in Sodo Seattle, Naperville, IL, and Greenwich Lane in NYC are offering free hot Clover or Clover X Starbucks brewed coffee and cold brew.

Dunkin’ Donuts: free coffee with purchase

To get a free cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on Wednesday, you must be a member of DD Perks, the chain’s free loyalty program. You can sign up on the Dunkin’ app or at

Panera Bread: free coffee for parents and caregivers

Parents and caregivers can receive unlimited free coffee all day Wednesday at Panera Bread – say you’re a parent or caregiver at the register to qualify.

Wawa: free coffee for teachers on Thursday

Get a free coffee at all Wawa locations across Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida, and Washington, D.C. on National Coffee Day this Wednesday. The deal extends into Thursday for all teachers and school staff members.

7-Eleven: free coffee with the purchase of a baked good

7-Eleven has two Coffee Day deals. Members of the chain’s 7Rewards loyalty program get a free coffee with any baked goods purchase. Or, you can order through the 7NOW app for a free extra-large hot coffee.

Au Bon Pain: $1 hot and iced brewed drip coffees

From Wednesday until Friday you can get a $1 brewed drip coffee at Au Bon Pain, available hot or iced. The bakery says the deal is a “pay-it-forward” celebration, and customers are encouraged to “treat someone else” with a purchase.

Barnes & Noble: free hot or iced tall coffee

The bookstore chain is offering free hot or iced tall coffee all day Wednesday with the purchase of a baked good.

Peet’s Coffee: 25% off coffee beans

National Coffee Day deals include 25% off coffee beans, espresso capsules, and Keurig cups. Enter Peet’s National Coffee Day giveaway to win a $2000 gift card – two winners will be selected.

Krispy Kreme: free coffee and doughnut

No purchase is necessary for Krispy Kreme’s Coffee Day deal. Rewards members get a free doughnut along with a free cup of brewed coffee.

McDonald’s: 99-cent hot or iced coffee

McDonald’s is offering 99-cent coffee for the remainder of the year if you order on the chain’s app. The deal can be used once a day.

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Starbucks baristas want you to stop asking them to blend food into your drinks

Starbucks in Leeds, UK
Former Starbucks baristas say customers have asked them to blend cake, cake pops, Danish pastries, cookies, brownies, and bananas into drinks – usually Frappuccinos.

  • Starbucks baristas are allowed to blend fruit into drinks, but not other food items.
  • Still, baristas say some customers request that cake, pastries, or egg bites be blended into drinks.
  • One said she’d even asked been asked to add protein shakes to drinks.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Should you ask your Starbucks barista to blend a cake pop, brownie, or cookie into your drink, chances are they’ll say no.

It’s against company policy for baristas to blend food into Starbucks drinks like Frappuccinos. But that hasn’t stopped customers from trying.

“I’ve had people asked for some food items blended,” Alexis Rivera, a former Starbucks shift manager in New Jersey, told Insider. “We don’t do that.”

A Starbucks representative said baristas “may handcraft blended beverages using ingredients offered at Starbucks stores including sauces, syrups, espresso, coffee and tea, Evolution Fresh juices, and bananas and blueberries.”

“Food items in store (including baked goods and egg bites) are not approved additions to blended beverages at Starbucks,” the representative added.

Numerous former baristas, however, told Insider they had gotten requests – which they said they rejected – for food to be blended into drinks. This included cake, cake pops, Danish pastries, cookies, and brownies.

Rivera said some customers brought in their own food or protein shakes and asked for them to be blended.

The baristas said this happened only with in-store customers because adding food to drinks wasn’t listed as a modification on the Starbucks app.

Speaking about in-store orders, Rivera said “technically if you’re not able to charge for it in the drink, it’s not something that can be made.”

But she said some customers would seek a workaround: “If you’re requesting those items too, you’re buying them separately, like a Frappuccino, but you’re asking, ‘Hey can you blend them for me?’ Some places do – some places don’t.”

“Making items like that during rushes where you don’t even have enough people to go to the back and clean them properly, that’s most likely why they’re declined,” she added.

Different baristas Insider spoke with had different attitudes. “It’s not worth risking my job to add a brownie to a blender,” a current barista in Florida said.

Rivera said one customer had even asked her colleague to blend egg bites into a drink, though the customer ultimately described it as a joke.

Rivera said her colleague didn’t follow through with the request – but a former barista in Indiana, who asked for anonymity because she still visited the store as a customer, said she had actually blended egg bites into a Frappuccino.

“It was just gross to hand out,” she said.

The Indiana barista said she had also blended a melted brownie into a frappuccino, too. She said her manager had told her that though she technically wasn’t supposed to blend food into drinks, she could tell the customer they could make it as a one-off.

A former barista in British Columbia, who asked to stay anonymous because she might return to work at the chain, said customers often asked for their Refreshers, which usually contained liquid, ice, and fruit pieces, to be blended.

“A lot of the time we’d be like, ‘We can do it, but we’d rather not put the fruit in it because the fruit gets stuck and it jams the blender,'” she said.

“They’re not really designed for that kind of thing,” she added, saying the staff at her store once broke a blender blending dried fruit into a drink.

Asking for fruit blended into their drinks is just another way customers are making their drinks orders more complex. Starbucks baristas told Insider they’re sick of making TikTok-inspired drinks, too, sometimes with “mile-long stickers” listing order customizations.

Do you work at Starbucks? Got a story to share? Email this reporter at Always use a non-work email.

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Some restaurants are closing dining rooms again, but owners blame staffing shortages, not COVID

Chick-fil-A dining room closed
Restaurant chains have had top close dining rooms.

  • Fast-food locations around the country are temporarily closing dining rooms or cutting hours.
  • Owners say that they can’t open dining rooms without enough staff.
  • The restaurant industry has faced a shortage of workers for the last year.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Restaurant chains are going through another round of dining room closures, but this time it’s not directly because of COVID-19 infections. Chains are having to adjust hours or only operate drive-thrus as they face a lack of staff to keep restaurants running.

McDonald’s reminded franchisees of guidelines that would allow them to close dining rooms in areas with high rates of infection, and Chick-fil-A is allowing operators to keep them closed through January for safety, but many dining room closures across the country are actually a direct result of the labor shortage.

Three Chick-fil-A restaurants in Alabama had to close their dining rooms over lack of staff, though they continued to make food for delivery.

“We, along with many businesses, are in the middle of a hiring crisis,” the Calera, Alabama Chick-fil-A restaurant said in a Facebook post. A McDonald’s location in North Carolina made a similar move, closing the dining room while keeping the drive-thru running.

Two more Chick-fil-A locations in northern Alabama have started closing early because of “extremely short staffing,” Grace Dean reported for Insider. Two campus Starbucks locations at the University of Alabama temporarily closed dining rooms due to “limited staff and supply chain challenges,” The Crimson White reported.

Staffing issues are a problem across the country. In an August earnings call, Wendy’s president and CEO told investors that some dining rooms were closing early and operating drive-thru only because of a lack of workers.

Dunkin' closing early sign
Restaurants are closing early and shortening hours over worker shortages.

A Dunkin’ location in Colorado temporarily closed operations completely after it was down to only three workers, Zahra Tayeb reported for Insider.

“We’re in a major labor crisis and that is the 100% reason why we’re closed,” Alex Apodaca, chief operating officer at JB Partners, the franchisee, said. “No other reason.” JB Partners closed and reopened two other Colorado locations this year over hiring issues.

At least two Dunkin’ locations in Rochester, New York have also shortened hours, and a location in The Villages in Florida temporarily closed its dining room for several days.

“It’s really tough times for staffing,” Kalinowski Equity founder Mark Kalinowski previously told Insider. Restaurant workers continue to quit the industry at record rates, moving to jobs where they don’t have to interact with angry customers. To ward off potential closures, some operators have gotten creative by recruiting young teen workers and offering sign-on bonuses and hiring incentives.

Do you have a story to share about a retail or restaurant chain? Email this reporter at

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Starbucks’ pumpkin cold brew drink is so popular, some workers say they’re struggling to keep it in stock even though there’s no shortage of base ingredients

Starbucks Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew
  • Six Starbucks workers told Insider that they can’t make cold brew, which must steep for 20 hours, fast enough.
  • Cold brew is an ingredient in the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, a popular fall drink.
  • Starbucks is likely feeling the effects of the labor shortage across retail.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Pumpkin spice season is in full swing at Starbucks, and some workers say that its popularity is causing temporary shortages of cold brew.

Specifically, the seasonal Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew drink’s popularity is causing some stores to run low on cold brew according to six workers in six states who spoke with Insider. All workers requested anonymity, but Insider confirmed their employment.

The workers say there isn’t a shortage of the ingredients required for cold brew, but they aren’t able to prepare it quickly enough to keep up with demand.

“We just burn through it faster than we can make it this time of year because of Pumpkin Cold Foam Cold Brew drinks,” Erika, shift supervisor in Ohio told Insider.

A Pennsylvania barista said the situation is the same at her location.

“There isn’t a shortage as far as we’ve been told, but it does take 20 hours to brew so if they don’t keep up on it we run out,” she told Insider. Workers at stores in North Carolina, New York, Alabama, and Hawaii confirmed that they were also having trouble keeping up with demand.

Customers have also taken to Twitter to vent about the lack of cold brew. “Starbucks is out of cold brew on September 3 when it’s 54 degrees outside and I’m spiraling,” one person tweeted.

A Starbucks spokesperson declined to comment on any cold brew brewing issues in stores but confirmed that the drink is made by combining coffee grounds with cold water to steep for 20 hours. That becomes cold brew concentrate, which is then diluted with water for serving. The long steeping time is key to the brewing process, giving the drink a sweeter, less acidic taste than iced coffee.

Workers say that the exact process can vary from store to store, but cold brew is made in batches of three to five pounds of coffee grounds. The grounds go into a piece of equipment called a Toddy, along with a ratio of water. Once brewed, the concentrate is good for up to five days, though these baristas told Insider that they run through it much more quickly.

Starbucks stores have four or five Toddys of cold brew, holding four liters of concentrate each. Once those are gone for the day, there’s no way to brew more until the next day.

The Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew is the drink these workers say is mostly to blame for higher demand. In 2020, the Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew outsold the Pumpkin Spice Latte, with 90 million drinks sold last year as cold drinks continue to dominate.

When her store runs out of cold brew, the Pennsylvania barista says that at her store they suggest iced coffee to customers, with an espresso shot if they want the extra caffeine. A lack of cold brew doesn’t stop customers from ordering pumpkin foam on other kinds of drinks, she says, even hot ones.

These six workers attribute their inability to keep up with customer demand to the labor shortage hitting retail outlets across the country, including Starbucks. If workers at a certain store is swamped with orders, they may not have enough time to make a new batch of cold brew. The brewing would then be delayed until the baristas can catch up on fulfilling orders and other tasks, on top of the already long 20 hour steeping time, workers say.

Starbucks stores, like most restaurants across the country, are facing a labor shortage with difficulty attracting and retaining workers. Baristas have previously told Insider about high turnover and few applicants. Some restaurants are so understaffed that they’ve been forced to close without any workers, while others have turned to incentives like bonuses or free perks for interviewing.

In just 11 months on the job, “I’ve also seen almost 30 partners leave and working conditions fall to the wayside,” Buffalo barista Katie Cook said in a statement.

Workers say it’s a problem across the country. “We cannot keep employees or hire enough workers to continue under the strains of working in these conditions,” Erika previously told Insider.

“Employees have been fired or people are quitting because we’re so overworked and stressed and abused,” a worker in the Midwest told Insider. “My store is down one-third of our staff and for the past month or so we have been losing a person a week, sometimes more.”

Do you work at Starbucks? Email this reporter at

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Starbucks is leaving America’s dying malls and focusing on drive-thrus

FILE PHOTO: People sit in a Starbucks cafe in a mall in Beijing, China, January 29, 2019.   REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: People sit in a Starbucks cafe in a mall in Beijing

  • Some Starbucks employees report their mall stores are closing.
  • Last year Starbucks said it was updating its strategy to focus on drive-thru and pick-up store formats.
  • Starbucks says it will still have some stores in malls.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The suburbs are making a comeback, but malls are getting left behind as Starbucks wants out, too.

Three Starbucks employees in three states, whose employment was confirmed by Insider, shared that their mall-based stores closed in the last month. They all requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

One barista in a Texas mall said he was “blindsided” at the news of the closure. All the baristas Insider spoke to were offered transfers to other locations.

Closing mall kiosks is part of Starbucks’ strategy of investing more in drive-thru and pickup locations. Last summer, Starbucks announced it would close 400 US stores to “strategically optimize” its portfolio, with the greatest changes in urban markets.

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“Starbucks continues to make meaningful progress to reposition our US store portfolio through this trade area transformation, which is now nearly 80% complete. In the past 12 months, we have opened 554 new stores combined with in-store seating and drive-thru service, repositioning our store portfolio to create a blend of traditional Starbucks stores with convenience-led formats,” a Starbucks spokesperson told Insider.

Fast food and fast-casual brands across the country have optimized drive-thrus over the last year as they became crucial in the age of COVID-19. Drive-thru orders have grown across the fast-food industry since the pandemic closed many dining rooms. On-the-go orders, meaning drive-thru and pickup orders, made up 80% of Starbucks orders prior to the pandemic, Starbucks told Insider, and increased more than 10% over pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021.

Starbucks has invested in new technology and formats as drive-thrus become even more critical to the brand. The coffee chain has started adding double drive-thru lanes, along with implementing video ordering capabilities and handheld tablets for baristas to take orders. These developments can all decrease wait times and make drive-thrus more efficient by reducing bottlenecks, Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski previously told Insider.

The coronavirus pandemic sped up the shift to pick-up and to-go locations, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said in an earnings call in 2020.

Despite the shift in strategy, Starbucks says “high-traffic areas like malls, airports, campuses, and our other licensed locations will remain a key pillar of the Starbucks experience.” This reiterates the chain’s earlier statement last year, saying “Our vision is that each large city in the US will ultimately have a mix of traditional Starbucks cafés and Starbucks Pickup locations.”

Starbucks decision to focus on drive-thrus and other formats over some malls makes sense. The retail apocalypse has made headlines for years, as some malls die a slow death and retail vacancy rates hit new highs. More than 12,000 stores closed in 2020, many of them crucial anchor stores that once kept malls afloat. The list of 2021 closures is still growing.

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11 awesome Starbucks menu items you can’t get in America

mooncakes starbucks
  • Starbucks has locations in 76 countries, many with their menu items that aren’t available in the US.
  • The most envy-inducing items include honey rose coffee, chocolate mooncakes, and Oreo-crusted tiramisu.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Out of Starbucks 76 locations worldwide, there are a ton of unique menu items inspired by local cuisines and tastes that you can’t get in the US.

For local menus, Starbucks often makes drinks and foods that are popular in the respective countries, but it also puts its own spin on different national favorites.

Here are some of our favorites:

Caramel Macchiato Mooncakes

caramel macchiato mooncake
1. Starbucks’ Caramel Macchiato Mooncake.

Mooncakes are an iconic Asian baked good that are normally eaten around the Mid-Autumn Festival. Now, Starbucks locations in Asian countries like Malaysia offer the ubiquitous snack too. While Starbucks offers classic mooncake flavors like sweet adzuki bean and lotus, it also put its own spin on the traditional dessert, with a chocolate hazelnut praline mooncake stuffed with a hazelnut lava filling and a caramel macchiato mooncake with a caramel center. 

Yo Yo cookie

Yoyo cookie starbucks
Starbucks’ Yo Yo cookie is available in Australia.

The classic Australian baked good was popularized by the Country Woman’s Association, an Australian women’s group, and are made by sandwiching a creamy vanilla filling between two shortbread cookies, according to the Australian food blog Bake Play Smile. 

Iced Espresso Matcha Fusion

Iced Espresso Matcha Starbucks drink
Starbucks’ Iced Espresso Matcha Fusion

In Indonesia, you can get a matcha espresso drink that fuses the flavors of green tea and coffee. Though it might sound like a strange combination, the light matcha flavor complements the coffee, and milk and sugar help to offset the bitterness, according to the Delicious Not Gorgeous food blog. The drink is also found in different forms in other countries, with some locations offering a matcha americano drink. 

German Chocolate Torte

German Schokotorte Starbucks
Starbucks’ Chocolate Torte

Starbucks’ chocolate tortes, available in Germany, are a classic German dessert made with a rich cocoa frosting, chocolate sponge cake, and dollops of chocolate creme on top. 

Sweet Sesame Frappuccino with Almond Jelly

sesame frappuccino
Starbucks’ Black Sesame Frappuccino with Almond Jelly

The sweet black sesame frappuccino blended with almond jelly infuses classic East Asian flavors with Starbucks’ signature sweet frappuccinos. Sweet black sesame is a classic ingredient in Asian dishes that tastes similar to peanut butter, and almond jelly is a soft, sweet dessert often made out of apricot kernel milk, sugar, and soy milk. 

Australian Beef Pie

starbucks beef pie
Starbucks’ Beef Pie.

Meat pies are another national favorite food in Australia, and mince pies ranked as one of Australians’ top 10 favorite foods, according to a poll. This meat pie is made with beef, and in general, meat pies are made with a shortcrust base and a chunky, savory filling with gravy. 

Mint Cold Brew Coffee

Starbucks' Mint Cold Brew Coffee
Starbucks’ Mint Cold Brew Coffee

The mint cold brew that can be found in some Starbucks locations in Asia combines grapefruit, lemon, and mint flavors with the chocolatey flavor of coffee.

Roti Kerak Pandan

Roti Kerak Pandan
Roti Kerak Pandan

The roti kerak pandan have a crunchy shell and a soft center. Pandan are fragrant leaves that grow in Southeast Asia and are often used in baked goods like cakes. 


Starbucks' Pancakes
Starbucks’ Pancakes

In French Starbucks locations, you can order pancakes with either chocolate, caramel, or syrup toppings. 

Whole Red Velvet Cake

Starbucks' Red Velvet Cake
Starbucks’ Red Velvet Cake

In Malaysia, you can buy whole cakes at Starbucks, including red velvet cake with sweet cream cheese frosting, triple chocolate cheesecake, and tiramisu with an Oreo crust and a mocha mousse.

Iced Rose Honey Latte

Starbucks iced rose honey latte
Starbucks Iced Rose Honey Latte

While this latte is available in some Starbucks Reserve locations in the US, it’s on the menu in regular Starbucks stores in Taiwan. The drink infuses honey and rosewater with milk and black tea, although other versions of the drink are made with espresso. 

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