While national coffee chains have been competing to offer their fall beverage menus earlier and earlier each year — and some local Dunkin’ Donuts shops put signs in their windows last week saying “Pumpkin is back!” — local roasters are keeping their cool and planning to introduce their fall drink menus closer to, well, fall.
On August 14, in the midst of 80-degree heat, Dunkin’ Donuts shops around the country began serving samples of free pumpkin drinks to introduce their fall beverage menu, set to officially debut on Wednesday, August 21. “We know it is early but PUMPKIN IS BACK,” blared a sign on the door of a Hoboken Dunkin’ Donuts on 12th Street a week ago. Meanwhile, reports say Starbucks plans to offer their own pumpkin-based drinks starting Tuesday, August 27.
These national chains have competed to offer their fall drinks earlier and earlier each year. Is this smart strategy, or are they out of their gourds?
Owners of smaller chains in New Jersey had mixed reactions to the August pumpkin drinks but agreed that they will introduce their autumn offerings later than the big chains.
“Honestly, we’re probably the last coffee shop to start offering our fall menu, but it’s something for people to look forward to and appreciate,” said Dale Ryan, the owner of Bwè coffee shops in Hoboken and Jersey City. The company specializes in coffee blends with Haitian beans. “We have a housemade ‘Fall Spice Latte’ using pumpkin, maple syrup, and an array of spices that comes out literally the first day of fall every year,” she said.
Ryan said the shops will also offer a sesame-flavored “flat black” midway through October for Halloween “and will be working on some other fun and tasty drinks.”
(Incidentally, Bwè has another October surprise planned: That’s when, according to Ryan, their new location in Hoboken’s north end will open.)
Ryan said the early Dunkin’ drinks don’t disturb her.
“I love that every coffee shop does their own thing and at their own time,” she said. “Making specialty drinks is a highlight at Bwè. It lets us be creative and try something that might be a little more complex than our staple menu items. We also make a lot in-house, so it’s a chance for us to use the freshest ingredients.”
Anand Patel of Hidden Grounds Coffee in New Brunswick, which also has newer spots in Jersey City and Hoboken, explained the business strategy behind offering these drinks early. “September, October, and November are the three busiest months for coffee shops,” he said, “not only due to fall flavors, but also, weather conditions are most ideal for cold and hot beverages. What you see is basically big chains trying to maximize on those three months of sales by introducing those flavors a bit earlier than they have in the past.”
He said local customers are supportive of small businesses like his.
“The barrier to entry for opening a coffee shop has become extremely easy due to recent surges in the amount of people that are looking to capitalize on all things coffee,” he said. “Also, it doesn’t take a lot of capital in order to open a coffee shop. The general population is moving toward supporting small, private coffee shops as opposed to big chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.”
Patel said his shops will introduce fall flavors in September or October so that customers have time to enjoy their summer drinks. He also stays away from the typical pumpkin spice lattes.
“This fall, we are switching it up a bit to solely focus on different flavored ciders,” he said. “We are working on lemon, apple, and pumpkin ciders, completely made from scratch in small amounts.”
Travas Clifton, the founder of Mod Cup coffee roasters in Jersey City — which has three shops in town but also roasts coffee to supply restaurants in Asbury Park and New York City — said he’s always found the pumpkin spice phenomenon a bit funny. He noted that initially, Starbucks didn’t have any pumpkin in their famed pumpkin spice latte.
He said that dedicated coffee roasters specialize in high-end coffee that has its own notes of various flavors.
“Blueberry, chocolate, caramel, hazelnut,” he said, “if you get really good coffee, roasted well, these are things on a coffee roaster’s flavor wheel. You’re never going to find pumpkin on there. To anyone who roasts coffee, they’d ask, ‘Why is pumpkin in there?’ Then, to find out there’s no pumpkin, it’s even funnier.”
Since his customers have asked for fall drinks, Mod Cup riffed on the no-pumpkin joke and last year introduced a “punkin spice” drink. It’s chai tea (an Indian black tea with spices) with dark chocolate, a shot of espresso, and spices like nutmeg, cardamom, and cloves, all steamed with milk.
But Clifton will sell no “punkin spice” before its time.
“I’m a true believer in keeping things when they should be,” he said. “Christmas season for me starts December 1 and ends December 31. It doesn’t start on the first of November.”
OK, then — when will the great punkin land in Jersey City?
“We won’t bring it back until the weather changes a little bit,” he said on Sunday afternoon, as temperatures climbed toward 90 degrees in the New York metropolitan area. “That’s for sure.”