On a recent visit to my local Trader Joe’s, I counted 42 pumpkin or pumpkin-spice products, including actual pumpkins. “I’m surprised it’s so little,” says Phil Lempert, a grocery store analyst and the editor of SupermarketGuru.
Pumpkin spice — generally made up of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, often with cloves or allspice or both — has become a mass-marketed marker of the onset of fall, and a widely mocked one to boot. To publicly embrace this spice blend is to brand yourself as “basic” (if a person), as pandering (if a brand), or as contrarian (if also acknowledging the status of pumpkin spice in the culture).
Trader Joe’s might be the largest and most diverse purveyor of pumpkin spice products in the country, as if a giant stood atop a packaged-food facility with a two-story shaker of the spice blend, just drenching everything in brown powder. This year, the company is selling pumpkin spice bagels, pumpkin-spiced O-shaped cereal which has no relation to a more famous cereal, pumpkin spice face masks, pumpkin spice cinnamon rolls, granola, oatmeal, caramel corn, Greek yogurt, rooibos tea, tortilla chips, and pumpkin-spiced pumpkin seeds. Among many more.
There’s also an influx of simply pumpkin, without the spice, as though the humble squash snuck onto store shelves behind the spice blend that bears its name. Dog treats, soup crackers, alfredo sauce — all of these are offered, seasonally, with pumpkin in them, often without the pumpkin spice. No other fall crop, not even the apple, receives branding in quite this way. You must buy these products simply because they are associated with fall.
The company did not respond to multiple requests for an interview; Trader Joe’s is notoriously (at least in media circles) uninterested in speaking to the press. In addition to emailing them, I also dug up a couple of phone numbers which were listed in association with Trader Joe’s communications staff. Those numbers were either wrong numbers or out of service. I sort of respect this.
In any case! Trader Joe’s anonymously told a writer at the Washington Post, back in 2016, that the California-based company had started selling pumpkin-spice products in “the mid-1990s.” Trader Joe’s, as you might guess from its vaguely tiki-inspired aesthetic, first opened under that name in 1967. But it wasn’t until 1987, when CEO John Shields took over from the company’s founder, Joe Coulombe, that Trader Joe’s began to expand outward from its California base. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that the number of Trader Joe’s locations multiplied by five in the 1990s; 1996 found the first Trader Joe’s on the East Coast, in the Boston area. Today there are nearly 500 locations across 43 states. (Sorry to Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and West Virginia.)
Trader Joe’s is an unusual grocery store for a bunch of reasons. The vast majority of its products are its own house brand, their specific provenance unknown. (Lempert describes Trader Joe’s sources as “one of the best-kept secrets in the industry.”) They rely on packaged goods, but will introduce and remove products from store shelves frequently — sometimes for seasonal reasons, sometimes because a product hasn’t sold well, sometimes because a product does sell well and they want to drive up demand. Their prices are low; their stores are colorful and friendly, albeit with sometimes-uncomfortable exoticist imagery. (Trader Joe’s was inspired by, and named after, tiki restaurant pioneer Trader Vic’s.)
But much of what makes Trader Joe’s unusual also makes them a perfect fit to overload their store shelves with pumpkin spice products. For one thing, Trader Joe’s is a very clever company, and knows what time of year they’ll sell the most stuff. “From back-to-school through the Super Bowl has the biggest food purchases of the year,” said Lempert. The fall is crammed with food holidays: back-to-school, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s.
This is the time of year when food retailers — along with many other retailers — make their most money. Americans gorge during the fall. Trader Joe’s leans into this like few other grocery stores do: They blanket their stores in fallen leaves, huge bins of pumpkins and apples, and scatter seasonal fall offerings across all their aisles. There are seasonal foods to be had in spring and summer; even winter has clementines. But it’s fall where the most money can be made, and so it’s fall when Trader Joe’s puts the most effort into creating specific seasonal products to squeeze out every last dime.
Trader Joe’s also has the vibe to go along with the tropes of fall, the warm blankets and hot cup of tea gripped with both hands. “Their retail environment goes out of its way to make you feel comfortable,” said Lempert. Trader Joe’s is aggressively friendly, slightly goofy. They have free coffee. Pumpkin spice has many of those same associations of warmth and comfort and childhood. The tones match.
But seemingly the biggest reason why Trader Joe’s has gone all-in on pumpkin spice, besides the obvious reason that it sells and Trader Joe’s is in the business of selling things, is that it’s a perfect fit culinarily. Trader Joe specializes in small twists on familiar classics. You know an “everything” bagel; how about just the spices from that, which you can put on whatever you want? How about a tater tot casserole, but made from cauliflower? Or peanut butter cups, but they contain both peanut butter and jelly?
Trader Joe’s can feel different to different kinds of shoppers. For many millennials and Gen Z-ers, raised during the American food revolution in which concepts of sustainability became mainstream and everyone seems to put turmeric in everything, Trader Joe’s is not adventurous at all. This isn’t a value judgment; Trader Joe’s sells many tasty things and is usually affordable with them. For suburban boomers, the vibe might be much more unusual, compared to most supermarkets.
Trader Joe’s makes it a point to not really stock anything that would be unfamiliar, and thus threatening, to most Americans, including the white boomers who were raised on a more limited variety of foods than newer generations. They sell frozen, microwavable pad Thai, not dried shrimp or tamarind paste. It’s a fine line to walk, and Trader Joe’s is vigilant about finding that balance of something unusual enough that you could only find it at Trader Joe’s, but not so unusual that you don’t know exactly what it is and what it will taste like.
Pumpkin spice is the perfect vehicle for this sort of experimentation. The individual spices within the pumpkin spice blend can be used for all kinds of things, but in the United States, those flavors — cinnamon, nutmeg, clove — are deeply associated with desserts and with the fall season. There’s no particular reason for this, as those spices have plenty of savory applications, and nobody in this country much cares about which season spices were harvested in, but those are the associations we have.
They’re also powerful spices, especially when used all together. That means that Trader Joe’s has a beautiful opportunity: You can pretty much put pumpkin spice in any dessert, and the shopper will know exactly what it will taste like, even if they’ve never had that exact dessert before.
Breads and pastries, pancakes and waffles, ice cream and granola: these are all fair game. It’s extremely easy, and tempting, to conjure up the flavors of cinnamon and nutmeg. You don’t have to have eaten a pumpkin spice pancake to know what it will taste like. And pumpkin spice is, despite any backlash over the reckless over-pumpkinizing of fall foods, a crowd-pleaser. Most people like it.
Familiarity, at least as much as the influence of Starbucks’s pumpkin spice latte, is the reason for Trader Joe’s insane yearly list of pumpkin and pumpkin spice products. There are plenty of other autumnal favorites that could be rolled out as seasonal offerings: It is, after all, the season of apples, pears, and grapes, in addition to vegetables like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli, all of which have had trendy moments recently. But at my local Trader Joe’s, though there were 42 pumpkin and pumpkin spice seasonal products, there were only three seasonal apple products, plus one spaghetti squash.
This isn’t because pumpkins are more popular than apples; they assuredly are not. It’s because apples don’t provide the same Trader-Joe’s-y-ness that pumpkins do. Try sticking apple into some of those pumpkin products, and it’s hard to feel like they have much pull. Apple-cinnamon oatmeal? Quaker Oats has sold that for decades. Apple yogurt? Apple-flavored tea? Not interesting, or not appealing. There’s also the fact that pumpkins, unlike apples, can be both savory and sweet — helpful for pumpkin ravioli, which couldn’t really have an apple equivalent. Pumpkin spice, as a spice blend, can go in just about anything; apple, as a fruit, has trouble providing its flavor to shelf-stable packaged foods.
Trader Joe’s sells a ton of pumpkin and pumpkin-spiced products in large part because they have stumbled on something that is achingly perfect for what they’re trying to do. It’s familiar, but can be used in slightly unfamiliar ways; it’s cheap; it’s trendy; and it’s associated with the company’s biggest-selling time of year. Pumpkin spice and Trader Joe’s were made for each other.
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