The Unicorn Strikes Back

The Brief, White-Hot Run of Starbucks' Unicorn Frappuccino
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Unicorn Frappuccino | Photo Courtesy of Starbucks

In case you missed it, the unicorn food craze has gone viral in recent months. The trend’s appeal is primarily visual, and the medium is the message: pastel-colored sweets are arranged in swirling, decorative patterns, topped with sprinkles and other goodies. These cakes, toasts and other baked goods are vivid enough to glow in the dark, and have had a good run on social media. They are perhaps the ultimate snack for a generation raised on Pokemon Go.

Starbucks hopped on the bandwagon last week, much to the outrage of their baristas. The chain took a break from purveying the world’s worst coffee and offered the Unicorn Frappuccino for a limited time. It became so popular that many locations sold out within a few days. “Magical flavors start off sweet and fruity transforming to pleasantly sour,” read the company’s ad copy. “Swirl it to reveal a color-changing spectacle of purple and pink. It’s finished with whipped cream-sprinkled pink and blue fairy powders.”

Unlike some creators of unicorn food, who use natural dyes made of beets or turmeric to achieve their vivid colors, Starbucks employed potassium sorbate in five of the main ingredients of its Frappuccino. Nor was the drink particularly healthy: it came in at 410 calories, with 59 grams of sugar and 62 grams of carbs.

The real problem, though, occurred behind the counter. The drink was time-consuming to make, and at some outlets dozens of orders were coming in at a time. Baristas went online to complain about the grueling working conditions, in which their hands got sticky and their hair was coated with pink powder. “I have never been so stressed out in my entire life,” said barista Braden Burson, in a viral tweet that was later deleted. It must have been a brutal five days.

Beyond the stresses and strains of the Starbucks workplace is the larger question of what food is supposed to be: is it something we eat to give us sustenance, or is it a source of visual appeal and magic? This debate raged on during the Ferran Adria years, when purists took umbrage at what they perceived to be the frivolity of molecular cuisine. By any measure, the Unicorn Frappuccino makes Ferran seem like Escoffier. Starbucks had the marketing acumen to limit the sale of the drink, and just as well—by next week, the newest craze will be coming over the horizon toward us.

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.

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