Web Exclusive | September 2014 | By Christine Blank

Beyond Pumpkin

Sure, pumpkin is king of the fall. But brands have other tricks up their sleeve this fall season.
Fast food brands jump on board pumpking flavor trend with innovative menu items.
Au Bon Pain's fall menu is comprised of a Pumpkin Croissant, Pumpkin CroisBun, Caramel Apple Bar, Pumpkin Pie Latte, and Oven Hot Turkey & Cheddar on 9-Grain Cranberry Ciabatta sandwich. image used with permission.

Pumpkin has long reigned as king of the fall, but this year, limited-service brands are not just adding a pumpkin pastry and calling it a season. Instead, several quick-service and fast-casual concepts introduced non-pumpkin products and innovative spins on the pumpkin flavor, while also launching creative marketing campaigns to bring customers in the door.

Au Bon Pain rolled out a Pumpkin Croissant, Pumpkin CroisBun (a croissant and bun hybrid pastry), Caramel Apple Bar, Pumpkin Pie Latte, and Oven Hot Turkey & Cheddar on 9-Grain Cranberry Ciabatta sandwich—all first-time introductions for the bakery chain—in late August as part of its fall menu.

“When we sat down to meet about fall flavors, we talked about how to deliver them in a distinct and different way. We have done pumpkin muffins for several years, but a lot of other people are doing that,” says Maria Feicht, chief brand officer for Au Bon Pain.

Au Bon Pain has already had success with its CroisBuns, so it simply added a pumpkin filling to the regular CroisBun. Meanwhile, executives opted for a Caramel Apple Bar because “bars are an emerging segment in the bakery segment,” Feicht says.

The brand has already received a strong customer response on the new items, and its grassroots marketing for the fall LTOs is also going well. “We don’t do mass advertising,” Feicht says. “Instead, we have an integrated campaign in our cafés, along with public relations outreach and social media.”

“We have done pumpkin muffins for several years, but a lot of other people are doing that.”

Starbucks is also heavily relying on social media to promote the star of its fall menu: the Pumpkin Spice Latte. This year, the beverage has its own Twitter handle: @TheRealPSL, “the official Twitter for the official fall beverage.” The account has more than 93,000 followers.

To build early attention for the Pumpkin Spice Latte, Starbucks held a “Spot the Spice” challenge on @TheRealPSL. The account tweeted hints about certain challenges, and those who completed the challenges received a special password on August 25. On August 26, customers who showed or said their PSL password to a barista “unlocked” the beverage early, allowing it to be sold at their local Starbucks store that day.

Dairy Queen earned attention with this year’s “DQ Blizzard Battle.” The promotion highlights the company’s Pumpkin Pie Blizzard, which has been featured for several years, as well as the new Apple Pie Blizzard, which is one of the brand’s best-testing blizzards, says Barry Westrum, executive vice president of marketing at Dairy Queen.

The chain is pitting two towns—Wenatchee, Washington, which is known for its apples, and Caro, Michigan, which is known for its pumpkins—against each other in the “DQ Blizzard Battle.” On a dedicated website, customers can vote for which blizzard tastes better and get “coaching” from residents of the two towns. The site went live at the end of August, and already has received more than one million votes.

“The number of votes has far exceeded our expectations. We also have almost 9.2 million fans on Facebook, and they are really engaged in the outcome of the promotion,” Westrum says.

Companies are also getting more interest in fall specials by combining them with value promotions. For example, Au Bon Pain debuted a “Select 2” value offer when it launched its fall items, allowing guests to save money when they combine soups and salads with whole or half sandwiches. While there are different pricing tiers, Au Bon Pain is promoting a half sandwich and small soup for $6.99.

“Consumers are always looking for a great value,” Feicht says. “It isn’t always just about price; it can also be through choice. They can create what they want their meal to be and feel good about it at a special price.”

Dairy Queen is also stressing value in October, when it will add a new $5 lunch option that comes with two crispy chicken wraps, fries, a soft drink, and a sundae. “Consumers have told us they really feel like it’s the best value in quick-serve restaurants. They get a full meal and dessert,” Westrum says.

While promotions are stirring up fall excitement across the industry, the season is really all about menu innovation, and many concepts have jumped in headfirst with a fall theme.

Denver-based, nine-unit Modmarket recently launched its fall menu, which includes Bacon Corn Pizza, Chicken Club Sandwich, Corn Chowder, Southwest Tofu Scramble, a Balsamic Roasted Carrots side, and Fruit Salad. Modmarket designs its menu around seasonal ingredients, which is one reason corn is prominent on the fall menu. Doing the menu that way is complex, but makes financial sense for the company, says cofounder Anthony Pigliacampo.

“By leveraging things that are fresh and more in-season, we pay a little less,” he says. “Our concept is built around having more variability in the operation.” New seasonal items are always among the top sellers for the company, he adds. The Bacon Corn Pizza has been among the top three best-selling pizzas for Modmarket since its introduction.

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