Every season, Starbucks comes up with new and exciting drinks that manage to capture our imaginations and taste buds: Pumpkin Spice Latte, anyone? But have you ever wondered how they come up with these game-changing creations?
We visited Starbucks’ Empire State Reserve location to meet with the Starbucks team and get the inside scoop. Read on for everything to know.
Where does Starbucks create their new drinks?
Called the New Beverage Innovation and Development Lab (formerly known as the Liquid Lab), Starbucks has a secure research and development space at their headquarters in Seattle. It’s here that all of your favourite beverages are ideated and brought to life by their team of food scientists and product managers. The lab is part chef’s kitchen and part scientist’s playground. It features industrial fridges, all the espresso equipment you can imagine, and a diverse pantry of potential ingredients.
How does Starbucks brainstorm their new beverages?
When it comes to creating new beverages, Starbucks relies on their creative team to get into the hearts and minds of customers. When creating the Pumpkin Spice Latte in 2003, the Starbucks team came up with over 100 different beverage ideas for fall. That list was narrowed down to 10 “paper concepts”, where the team would write down a description of the beverage with a drawing. That list was taken to a sampling of customers, where customers would rate how likely they were to purchase the beverage, along with how unique they thought the beverage was. Those insights helped the Starbucks team narrow down their new beverages down to four options, which then got developed in the Starbucks Liquid Lab.
How does Starbucks test out new flavours for their beverages?
According to Peter Dukes, creator of the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, “there are no rules” when it comes to the brainstorming process. When creating the Pumpkin Spice Latte, the Starbucks team brought pumpkin pies into the Liquid Lab and literally dunked them in espresso to see how the flavours might work together. This also helps them to determine the food science behind the beverage: because pumpkin pie has a heavier body, the Starbucks team realized the foundation of the Pumpkin Spice Latte would need to be a heavier sauce instead of their typical lighter syrup.
How does Starbucks know if their drinks will be successful?
Starbucks relies on test markets and consumer feedback to determine whether or not their drinks will reach all of their stores. Before the Pumpkin Spice Latte was launched across North America, Starbucks tested it at stores in Vancouver, BC and Washington, DC to see how it performed. Unsurprisingly, those cities loved it, and the rest is history.
Starbucks also launches exclusive drinks that are specific to certain markets. This past spring, Starbucks launched a Iced Strawberry Oat Matcha Tea Latte only in Canada, because they knew it would resonate with Canadian customers.
Does Starbucks turn customer “secret menu” drinks into official menu items?
They sure do! The recently launched Iced Pumpkin Cream Chai Tea Latte off of Starbucks’ fall 2023 menu is a prime example of that. It was such a popular drink customization that Starbucks decided to add it to the official menu. According to Starbucks, they’re always keeping an eye on the different ways customers customize their beverages: it’s a powerful indicator of upcoming trends.
How does Starbucks know what drinks to launch next?
Much like adding popular drink customizations to their permanent menu, Starbucks has endless data on what customers are buying, and they use that to inform their next creations. According to Starbucks, their Iced Shaken Espressos have become particularly popular with Gen Z customers, so naturally, one of their latest additions to their fall menu was their Iced Apple Crisp Oat Shaken Espresso. It’s also noteworthy that Starbucks is introducing plant-based milks as defaults on many of their drinks (like the aforementioned Iced Apple Crisp Oat Shaken Espresso) because more and more customers were customizing their beverages to use plant-based milk.
Similarly, iced drinks now make up significantly more real estate on the Starbucks menu than in years past, and this is in response to customer preferences. Starbucks tells us that 75% of the beverages they sell now are iced. This is in sharp contrast to 2001, when only 20% of beverages sold were iced. Naturally, Starbucks has adjusted their menu to meet customer demands.
So while it may seem like Starbucks has a magical crystal ball that shows them what drink to develop next, it turns out that customer preferences are the ultimate deciding factor. Remember that next time you place your extra customized secret menu drink order!