Where were you when you first heard about Starbucks Pink Drink? Chances are good that you saw a picture of it on Instagram or maybe Twitter before you saw it in the wild, if you ever actually saw it in person. People went crazy for the Pink Drink, a drink from Starbucks so-called secret menu. It's actually fairly simple to order: the Strawberry Acai Refresher with coconut milk and topped off with a scoop of strawberries. It tasted fine, kind of like fancy strawberry milk. But it looked bangin', which is why the Pink Drink is the Starbucks trend that launched a thousand Instagram posts—and a bevy of other customized beverages.
Yes, 2016's biggest Starbucks trend—besides being a dickhead to your barista, which, somehow, unfortunately, seems to be a perennial trend, but we'll get to that—was ordering Instagram-worthy drinks off the secret menu. And you can thank the Pink Drink for opening that Pandora's Box. Once customers understood that they could "hack" the menu to make drinks based on appearance, it was only a matter of time before a whole rainbow of Starbucks drinks popped up. There was the Purple Drink, the Orange Drink, even the Blue Drink, which, when done correctly, really does look like a gorgeous shade of cornflower blue, which looks like something that is probably a poor idea to ingest.
The focus at Starbucks this year was definitely on the visual rather than taste, which is why this trend got weird. All year long, there were cycles of stories of secret menu Starbucks drinks. What drink could be the weirdest? There was even one secret menu Starbucks drink for your dog, called the Puppuccino. (For the record, that's just a shot of whipped cream in an espresso cup; we'd know, because we brought our resident dog mascot out in Brooklyn to try it.) Then, in October, someone decided to create a drink called Baby Vomit, which definitely looked like baby vomit but, like, didn't taste awful.
Here's the thing about the Starbucks secret menu, though. It's not as much a formal menu as it is a series of customizations you can make to existing Starbucks drinks, so ordering from it basically requires you to be nice to your barista and a little bit patient. You can't just go into your local Starbucks and demand a drink called Baby Vomit and expect your barista to make exactly what you saw on Reddit. You can, however, go in and politely ask your barista to make a drink called Baby Vomit a series of pre-researched ratios of pumps of syrup to amounts of milk that you've either committed to memory or stored somewhere on your phone.
That's why it's been frustrating to see Starbucks become a place where life online clashes with reality. Starbucks baristas, bless their hearts, have been asked to do so much for us this year, far beyond greeting us in the morning with a smile and a cup of coffee. They've also been asked to fight our culture wars—many of which, for what its worth, were born on the internet, just like the more benign trends like Puppuccinos and Pink Drinks. Baristas have been forced to write "Trump" on a bunch of coffee cups, explain that the limited time green cup was not part of the war on Christmas, and experience customer meltdowns over white privilege.
The rise of the Starbucks secret menu has been wonderful in a lot of ways. We all love a good video of a dog eating whipped cream, after all. But ways in which these secret menu drinks spread shows the power of the internet in setting trends, even at your local coffee shop—as well as the ways in which those frenzied fads can swing the other way, too.
We ask so much of our Starbucks baristas, and though it's great to for customers to feel empowered to order off-menu drinks, just they way they like, there's a fine line between ordering confidently and bossing someone around, forcing them to fight your battles for them. So maybe 2017 will be the year that baristas finally get the respect that they deserve. After all the secret menu drinks they made in 2016, they've definitely earned it.