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The Frappuccino as Rite of Passage

For many tweens and teens from the ’90s and beyond, the Starbucks Frapp was a gateway into what felt like adulthood

Illustration of kids taking a phone photo of a Frappuccino

I don’t remember much, but I can vividly recall ordering my first Frappuccino. I was 12, and the first Barnes & Noble with a Starbucks cafe opened in my South Texas hometown. Staring at the drink menu, unsure of what a latte or a macchiato would even look like, I ordered what felt like the tasty-but-chic choice: the Vanilla Bean Crème Frappuccino. It was all whipped cream and saccharine vanilla — the kind of tongue-coating sweetness that’s de rigeur as a kid and a little depraved as an adult. But drinking it made me feel not just extremely cool; I felt like I had taken a step toward the kind of urbane life I saw myself living outside my suburban town.

In 1993, when the first Starbucks opened in New York City, a latte was exotic enough to merit the New York Times defining the drink and explaining its pronunciation. The Frappuccino was first tested in a San Fernando Valley Starbucks that same year: A few Starbucks managers had noticed smaller coffee shops in the area with blended coffee drinks, and they saw an opportunity for the chain to have a similar beverage during a hot, sticky summer. It was after Starbucks bought the Coffee Connection, an Eastern Massachusetts coffee chain, in 1994 that the drink became the Frappuccino. George Howell, founder of the Coffee Connection, had dreamed up the drink two years earlier as a version of the cappuccino granita, an Italian frozen dessert. Howell’s marketing manager, Andrew Frank, dubbed it the Frappuccino, a portmanteau of “frappe,” the New England word for a milkshake.

The drink was introduced to Starbucks locations all over the country in 1995 with the original flavors of mocha and coffee. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Blended Créme beverages — Frappuccinos sans coffee or tea, and in flavors like Vanilla Bean or Strawberries & Crème — were launched. “At the time, domed lids were radical thinking, so was the idea of adding whipped cream,” wrote Starbucks’s Dina Campion in a brief history of the Frappuccino, published in 2015 to mark the drink’s anniversary. “But for our customers it represented a momentary break — an escape in their day.”

And for the last two decades, give or take, that dome lid and green straw have been synonymous with modern-day preteen life. Maddy Franklin, a 23-year-old designer living in Brooklyn, has a “very vivid memory” of being a 13-year-old putting her “precious two-dollar bill” towards buying a caramel Frappuccino. “I used to have the amount it cost (with tax) memorized and would count it out to exact change during middle school nearly every Friday,” she says. “We had a Starbucks and a Jamba Juice store a few blocks away, so we would all make the pilgrimage every Friday after school. I learned a lot about the world at that Starbucks while drinking a Frapp.” Now, there are reportedly over 36,000 possible flavor combinations of the comfortingly sweet Frappuccino, creating a devotion that’s lead to preteen Frappuccino-themed birthday parties.

Bryant Simon, a professor at Temple University who wrote Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks, describes the appeal of the blended-creme drink to teens — and to Starbucks. “Frappuccinos and stuff like that, they’re gateway drugs,” he says. “Teens can ease their way into a drink where the coffee’s actually disguised — or they don’t even have to have it. If I’m Starbucks, I’m loving that because I’m building loyalty.”

“What are these tokens, these consumables that allow a younger person to feel like they’re entering into this adult world?” Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing at food trend analyst firm CCD Innovation asks. “A Frappuccino is one of those types of things that gives them the feeling of appropriating adult behavior, and yet also straddles this world of still being sort of like an ice cream milkshake.”

But what’s remained unchanged is that coffee is still a symbol of adulthood, and Starbucks — as omnipresent as it might be — still requires a mastery of the language of words like venti and macchiato. “That’s a cool thing for teens,” Simon says. “That language, which middle-class parents speak, their kids can speak — it also distinguishes themselves from other people who don’t speak it.”

A vanilla Frappuccino in plastic cup Daniel Lee/Flickr

Aside from that, Starbucks itself has served as a hangout spot for teens over the last two decades. There’s probably at least one location in bike-riding distance of their homes, and it’s a familiar spot for their parents. Places like Barnes & Noble and Starbucks also operate as the sort of “third place” gathering space that can be hard to find. For teens, whether in strip-mall suburbia or in cities, there aren’t that many places to hang out. Starbucks is a low-supervision spot where young people can gather after school or in the evenings.

“Starbucks benefits from other institutions not being there,” Simon says. “Library hours have been slashed everywhere, community centers have been slashed. Malls by nature don’t have public transportation, and that helps city kids. There aren’t really diners anymore, plus they require another kind of investment. Where can teens go?”

For 14-year-old Evelyn Nielsen, niece of Kara Nielsen, Starbucks is where she and her friends ride their bikes to after school in her Indiana town. It is, she tells me, the main hangout spot. Though she says “boys like them a lot,” she and her friends aren’t really drinking Frappuccinos. They opt, instead, for Starbucks Refreshers or other iced coffee drinks. Her personal go-to order is the “Pink Drink” (a Strawberry Acai Refresher with coconut milk) and a cake pop.

“The Unicorn Frappuccino and the Zombie Frappuccino, they had the big bright colors and tasted like Sour Patch Kids and all this random stuff,” she says. “I was curious but I never tried them because there were other things I liked on the menu. I’d heard that they weren’t that good. Each drink is like a $5 drink, and if I don’t know if I’m going to like it, I usually prefer to get something that I know that I’m going to like.”

Back in 2007, a Starbucks spokesperson told NBC News its was considering whether or not to add more drinks that appealed to young people, but up until that point, the company had insisted that they didn’t market specifically to children. By 2011, Starbucks became the top restaurant brand for teens. It held that title consistently until April of this year, when Chick-fil-A took the coffee giant’s top spot in the Taking Stock With Teens survey, a semi-annual report by Piper Jaffray that studies teen shopping and consumption behaviors.

“I think Starbucks has more cultural capital amongst teens than it does amongst twenty-somethings,” Simon says. “They’re going to lose a lot of those [teen] customers as they become aware of a coffee landscape and landscapes of cool, but they also run the chance of creating lifelong customers.”

During Starbucks’s tenure as number-one teen favorite — and with the rise of Instagram food trends — the fantastical, limited-edition flavors began. During the summer of 2015, six “fan favorite” Frappuccinos debuted, including Cinnamon Roll and Cotton Candy flavors, each seemingly designed to appeal to the sweet teeth of teens. Then, there was the season of the unicorn: The pink-and-blue drink, which was available for just four days in April 2017, generated around 180,000 Instagram posts during that brief period. It was followed by other toy-store flavors with the Mermaid Frappuccino released in Mexico a few months later, then the Zombie Frapp in October 2017 and the Crystal Ball Frapp in March 2018.

But last June, Starbucks reported a 3 percent decline in Frappuccino sales, leading the company to announce they were stepping away from stunt drinks like mermaid or zombie Frappuccinos by 30 percent.

“From a trend churn standpoint, these sorts of novelty trends and limited-time-flavor trends are burning at a faster rate because it moves so quickly thanks to social media,” Kara Nielsen explains. “It’s become this insatiable beast, and consequently we get bored easily and are always looking for more. The [limited time offer] game is getting harder to play.”

Over the last few years, Starbucks began to shape its identity somewhere between $10 Starbucks Reserve coffee flights and limited-time social media grabs. Drinks like the Pink Drink, the one favored by Evelyn Nielsen, are still Instagram-friendly, yet more subtle and a bit healthier.

Cold brew beverages have also shifted focus away from Frappuccinos, with Vanilla Sweet Cream Cold Brew and Cold Brew with Cascara Cold Foam — the sorts of iced-coffee drinks Evelyn Nielsen describes her friends ordering — making espresso and sugar feel more sophisticated. Last March, Ariana Grande was the face of not a multi-hued Frappuccino but a “Cloud Macchiato,” a drink with espresso, whipped cold foam, and caramel or cinnamon flavoring.

The Frappuccino Happy Hour — where customers can get 50 percent off Frappuccinos size grande or larger for a few afternoon hours — was brought back this summer, and Starbucks hasn’t given up on Instagram stunts. Just last week, leaked documents revealed that a Tie-Dye Frappuccino will launch for a limited time in July. Whether or not the viral moment works, there will always be middle-schoolers wanting something sweet and vaguely adult — and some millennial-aged adults experiencing caramel-flavored nostalgia on a summer afternoon.

This may be an indication of the nostalgia cycle collapsing on itself, but we might be a bit sentimental for Frappuccinos. Twitter has told me this, if comedian Pat Regan’s Starbucks oblivion tweet getting 17,000 retweets is any indication. The wild, escapist nature of the Frappuccino beats on, even if it’s no longer an inventive social-media grab. Starbucks’ current menu advertises three seasonal Frappuccino flavors — S’mores, Mocha Cookie Crumble, and Caramel Ribbon Crunch — with the reassuring slogan “Your favorites are back.” No unicorns, no crystal balls, back to basics; just as the 12-year-old me ordered, feeling so cool with that green straw poking through whipped cream.

Kelsey Lawrence is a freelance journalist who’s written about everything from young designers reclaiming western wear to the interior design of the Cheesecake Factory. Michelle Mruk is a NYC based illustrator.