The Story of the Frappuccino
How a chilly coffee drink became a billion dollar behemoth
Coupons from the 1992 launch of the Frappuccino, courtesy of George Howell
It was 1992, and the Coffee Connection cafe owner George Howell was looking for a way to keep his sales up during the summer months. He’d heard of a trend on the west coast of blending iced cappuccino drinks, and had flown out to Seattle to sample a version at Torrefazione Italia, which was then an independent chain making a kind of cappuccino granita. While there, Howell also scouted out a rapidly expanding chain that was cropping up all over the city: Starbucks. Upon arriving back in Boston, he tasked his young marketing manager, Andrew Frank, with coming up with a recipe for the Coffee Connection. Frank developed a unique blend of coffee, sugar, milk, and ice, and used a frozen yogurt machine to create a smooth, creamy consistency. And Frank came up with the name as well: The Frappuccino, a play on the New England milkshake, the frappe.
The Frappuccino revolutionized Boston’s coffee consumption habits, and helped Howell double his business in the next year to 23 cafes. In 1994 Starbucks arrived and eventually convinced Howell to sell them his locations, as well as the rights to the Frappuccino name. “The Frappuccino wasn’t my life goal,” Howell says now. But it certainly changed the way we think of coffee. Starbucks bought the Coffee Connection chain for $23 million dollars in 1994, and by 1996 they made over $52 million in annual Frappuccino sales (they also changed the recipe, and began making the drink in a blender). They inked a deal with Pepsi to make the tiny ready-to-drink milk bottles of the brew shortly after. (“I see those little baby milk bottles all over the city,” Frank says now from his home in Toronto. Frank left the Coffee Connection a year before Howell sold to Starbucks and didn’t receive a stake in the sale; the statute of limitations for potential remuneration expired seven years ago.)
The Frappuccino is credited with overhauling the Starbucks experience. It’s CEO, Howard Schultz, had envisioned the chain to be an artsy, European-style coffee shop. “The Frappuccino transformed it into a haven for moms and office workers,” writes Taylor Clark in Starbucked. Along those lines, starting in 2002, Starbucks began introducing a new Frappuccino each spring, coordinating the flavor to match whatever colors were appearing on the runways (so yes, you are subconsciously matching your drink to your clothes). According to the Design Your Own Frappuccino website, the number of Frappuccino drink combinations you can now create totals more than 87,000. The Frappuccino now accounts for 20 percent of Starbucks’ annual sales, worth over $2 billion, and represents nearly two thirds of the entire frozen coffee drink market.
And oh what a market it is. Other chains have obviously caught on to the concept of a chilly coffee drink, and it seems that in order to sell one, you have to do so under a goofy name. There is perhaps no greater tribute to the cultural influence of the Frappuccino than to list the many, many imitations it has spawned, though none has the pure elegance of the original. To wit:
Dunkaccino (Coolata)—Dunkin’ Donuts
Caramel Cowpuccino —MaggieMoo’s
Mo’cuccino —Smoothie King
Kona Coffee Shake —Jack in the Box
Cappuccino Blast — Baskin Robbins
Caribou Coolers —Caribou Coffee
Know of another Frappuccino knock off? Add it in the comments.