Despite some very unseasonable weather, it is officially fall and, for people across the country, that means one thing: Pumpkin spice season is here! Love it or hate it, the pumpkin craze is still going strong at mega-chains and mom-and-pops alike…and on the Instagram accounts of people who apparently spend their entire autumns drinking artfully poured pumpkin spice lattes while wearing big cozy sweaters.
According to restaurant management platform Upserve, it’s not just your most #basic friends who are obsessed with the flavor—and the craze shows no sign of flagging. In fact, consumers across the board are purchasing even more pumpkin food and beverages than ever this year (even though total dollar sales are flat).
So what gives? We tapped a number of well-regarded chefs and bar managers to get the skinny on the skinny pumpkin spice latte—and whether or not they plan on leaning into the trend this season.
Jason Heard, executive chef at Coppersmith
“We are using pumpkin on the new menu, but not the spices normally associated with it. I wouldn’t say we are rejecting it but none of us in the kitchen like that flavor profile,” says Heard. “I cannot speak for the bar or cafe, but the main kitchen isn’t moving forward with it. I believe that it’s better set as a drink ingredient as opposed to a food ingredient. I guess the exception is actually pumpkin pie…which is really only acceptable, in my opinion, on Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
Instead, he says, “We are using dry fruits and cider in multiple places but we’ve left that ‘pumpkin spice’ craze to the likes of Dunkin’ Donuts.” Heard’s alternative take on seasonal flavors can be found in dishes like the Cider Braised Beef with Hubbard Squash and Raisins.
Justin Winters, chef de cuisine at Cinquecento
Winters feels like pumpkin gets a bum rap—and it’s due to the word “spice” getting tacked on the end of it.
“I believe that ‘pumpkin spice’ has given the actual use of pumpkin as an ingredient a bad rep, and the craze of it all is honestly too much of a good thing. It is unfair for pumpkin lovers because the ‘pumpkin spice’ and pumpkin flavored items are mostly bad,” he says.The pumpkin spice trend will never fully die.' - Ian GrossmanClick To Tweet
So Winters chooses to embrace the organic flavor on his fall menu. “As a chef, I love the flavor of pumpkin, as it always transports me back to the holidays and nothing tastes like fall more than pumpkin,” he explains. “I understand the craze [but] I would beg those passionate for a pumpkin spice flavor to dig deeper and go for the real thing. The best use of real pumpkin is simply roasted with butter, brown sugar and sage, or infused with vanilla vodka!” Currently on his menu at Cinquecento: A rich pumpkin pansotti made with brown butter, sage and amaretti cookies.
Eli Shapiro, bar manager at Rail Stop Restaurant & Bar
Shapiro makes no bones about his intentions this season with his signature cocktail the Pumpkin Up, which he says his contribution to the pumpkin spice craze. “Not only do we represent the classics here at Rail Stop, but we also cater to what the people want,” he says. “The demand is there and we are proud to represent.”
The Pumpkin Up is made of tequila-based cream cordial Vespertino, housemade pumpkin puree, and Crop organic spiced pumpkin vodka. Shapiro describes it as “sugar and spice and everything nice.” “It’s creamy, delicious and balanced,” he says. “The sweetness of the cordials and puree are cut by the spice of the cinnamon powder. It is aesthetically pleasing with our presentation and just plain fun.”
As for whether he thinks the pumpkin spice craze is going away anytime soon? “I personally think that the pumpkin craze is going strong. I am even considering making those Lance Armstrong-type bracelets calling them ‘pumpkin-strong’….maybe not,” he jokes. “But yes, the pumpkin craze is here to stay—at least for this season. Pumpkin beer has been popular for quite some time and now is the time to incorporate [it] into cocktails.”
Ian Grossman, general manager at The Smoke Shop BBQ
Last year, Grossman says, his restaurant attempted to get their slice of the pumpkin spice craze pie with a pumpkin take on their popular frozen bourbon boozy shake, the Skinny Dennis. It didn’t sell as expected.
“I would say that this cocktail was our answer to the pumpkin spice craze last year. Not only was it unsuccessful for us but it ended up being the least popular Skinny Dennis flavor of the entire year,” he explains. “Because of that, we are not repeating it this year.”
That doesn’t mean he thinks the craze will die anytime soon, however. “In my humble opinion, the pumpkin spice trend will never fully die but it is already past peak popularity,” he says. “Pumpkin spice-flavored everything is pretty much ubiquitous, which to me means that it’s no longer special, and if it isn’t special then no one is going to get excited about it.”
That said, Grossman believes the flavor profile can be tasty—if executed correctly. “If I remember correctly, when I was a young cook all pumpkin spice mixes and all pumpkin spice recipes had mace in them. Now none of them do,” he says. “In my opinion, none of the pumpkin spice-flavored products I have had [since] taste right because all of them are missing a defining ingredient. There is historical evidence for my argument too: A ‘Pompkin’ recipe calling for a similar spice mix (mace, nutmeg and ginger) can be found as far back as 1796 in the first known published American cookbook, American Cookery, written by Amelia Simmons.”
Kris Koch, chef at TheSIX15 Room
“I think the pumpkin craze is getting a bit over-played,” says Koch. “I think it’s best to keep the pumpkin spices in the kitchen, but I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. If everyone’s happy with that, then I’m happy too.”
To that end, Koch is serving up a dish featuring a whole kabocha. He scoops out the seeds and roasts it with olive oil, salt and pepper. The roasted pumpkin is then blended with sautéed onions and garlic, ginger, curry powder, heavy cream and apple cider vinegar. The scooped out pumpkin seeds serve as garnish. “It’s warm, earthy, sweet and savory with just a touch heat at the end. It’s very satisfying on a cold fall day,” he says.
Plus, Koch says, there’s a uniquely comforting element about pumpkin. “My favorite thing about cooking with pumpkins is scooping out the seeds. There’s something nostalgic about it that reminds me of carving pumpkins as a kid. We’d carve them around Halloween at my Grandma’s house with the smell of her pumpkin pies baking in the background.”
Michael Heyne, co-CEO/co-founder of Verts Mediterranean Grill
Heyne says his chain of fast-casual Mediterranean restaurants will be offering a pumpkin spice milk tea made with Earl Grey tea this season, in a nod to the craze. However, they’ll also be serving a menu of less trendy fall flavors.
“Restaurant-goers are passionate about pumpkin-flavors around fall but over the years, we’ve seen pumpkin take a backseat to other seasonal produce that thrive come October,” Heyne explains. “Our culinary director has created a fall menu with unsuspecting seasonal items like a savory sweet potato hash and tangy radish salad.”
Charissa Davidovici, founder of Sugar Factory American Brasserie
The founder of this mega-popular chain of sweet-leaning cuisine points to a pumpkin martini as their contribution to the season. “We definitely love the pumpkin spice craze, however the Pumpkin Souffle Martini is Sugar Factory’s own take on a fall-friendly cocktail. We wanted to create something that would have its own unique identity, while still appealing to everyone’s favorite fall trend,” she says, noting that the vanilla and white chocolate flavors from the liquor complement the pumpkin pie spice and make it “just the right amount of sweet.”
Davidovici doesn’t foresee the trend waning. “I think pumpkin is definitely still going strong, one of the reasons being that people are finding so many new and innovative ways to incorporate it into drinks and dishes,” she says. “It’s a staple fall flavor, and since it’s only seasonal, it gives people something to look forward to each year.”
Jenn Harvey, bar manager at Temple Bar
When asked if she’s a fan of the pumpkin spice phenomenon, Harvey says, “It depends on the pumpkin. Overall, I can do without sweet things that don’t actually have any pumpkin flavor and are all spice. To me, it’s all about balance.”
She finds that balance in her Warm Wind Blowing, a seasonal cocktail made with cognac, Becherovka and pumpkin syrup, topped off with Angostura bitters and served in a coupe. “It is very warming, but it’s not a warm drink,” she says. “The Becherovka and Angostura adds a subtle note of spice, without adding a ton of sweetness and the cognac comes through nicely. I think it’s a great cocktail for both the lovers and the haters of pumpkin spice.”
It’s a libation that suits her Cambridge bar nicely. “I would say there is a bit of supply/demand that came into the creation of this drink. Fall in Massachusetts is one of my favorite times of the year, with a lot of sensory overload. Because pumpkin is very versatile and really shines during this season, it has become very popular.”
Abe Botello, executive chef at Florent Restaurant & Lounge
The Golden State might not get the same crisp fall weather as other parts of the country, but they’re not immune to the call of pumpkin spice. “I’ve always liked the idea of bringing those pumpkin fall flavors into Florent’s menu, and of course into San Diego,” Botello says. “I think people, in general, anticipate those months where we can offer a little bit of fall fare. I used pumpkin in the past, but butternut squash and sweet potato are equally as delicious seasonal flavors. I also have experimented, making my own ‘fall’ blend consisting of spices like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon.”
Florent’s fall menu includes dishes like a braised short rib with fall spice-roasted butternut squash and braised greens or a fall spice-roasted chicken paired with charred lemon and mustard reduction. “I like to keep it simple,” Botello says. “I think the pumpkin craze only lasts a few months and I like to contribute by sharing recipes that use pumpkin flavor in unexpected, unique ways. It contributes to the craze, but in a sophisticated way.”