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Birth of a new coffee drink

Launching Starbucks Dulce De Leche Latte took more than a year.
/ Source: TODAY

Starbucks’ newest beverage offering isn’t just a creamy, caffeinated confection. At 570 calories for a Venti with whipped cream, the Dulce De Leche Latte is a breakfast in a cup — and a darned tasty one at that.

"The Latin American cuisine is very trend-forward, and Dulce de Leche is part of that, so we think that people want to push the edge, push the envelope and taste something new and different," a member of the Starbucks research and development team told TODAY’s Josh Mankiewicz.

The Latin American caramel treat, dulce de leche, isn’t completely new to American audiences, who were introduced to it in ice cream first by Haagen Dazs in 1998 and later by Starbucks. And America’s trendiest coffee company has been using caramel as a flavoring for years.

But, as Starbucks executives and researchers at company headquarters in Seattle told Mankiewicz, the new drink, also available as a frappuccino, didn’t just spring full-grown like Athena from the head of Zeus. It was the result of more than a year of research, experimentation and fine-tuning.

Developing a flavorAfter extensive in-house taste-testing and research with focus groups, coffee creators think they have a winner. "We say that some people have a golden tongue in the building. And if they like it, you know, they pretty much know what's gonna do well," one employee said.

Just the same, said Rob Grady, the company’s vice president for marketing, the real test is in the coffee shops.

"It's gotta be good. It's gotta be good," he emphasized. "There's no - there's no secret sauce. Partners and customers gotta say, ‘Wow, I really like that.’"

Since its birth as a coffee roasting company in 1981, Starbucks has been pretty good at getting customers to say that magic phrase. Under the direction of Chairman Howard Schultz, the company has grown to 13,500 locations and 150,000 employees with plans to girdle the globe with 40,000 locations by 2012. With all the competition to satisfy the the caffeine cravings of America and the world, Schultz hasn’t gotten where he is by failing to hit his customers’ "wow!" buttons.

For Schultz, it’s not just about selling a cup of joe, but about an experience and a story. Probably more than any one person, he’s reinvented the venerable coffee house, which for so long has been a staple of European culture, and made it a centerpiece of American life.

As Mankiewicz said, "They're not just selling coffee here, they're selling atmosphere, warm feelings, and cool music. Sales last year? 7.8 billion. That's a lot of beans."