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Driving down West Howard Street on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I noticed two young ladies, actually little girls, sitting behind a table on the corner. They hollered and waved vigorously at me as I went by. I gave them a return toot of the horn. A lemonade stand. How cute! I dug into my pocket to find the smallest bill I had on me was a twenty.
The site took me back a bunch of years to Madison, Wisconsin. Along with my siblings, we would set up Kool-Aid stands. As enterprising youth, we hoped to make a few dollars. “Who knows?” I thought back then, “If this works well, I could make a living at this. The problem was that we lived on the dead-end block of our road. There wasn’t enough traffic going by our house, and honestly, we drank all the product ourselves.
I had an idea. We should move our stand one block to the west onto Buckeye Road. It was a busy street with a lot of traffic. That we did and we made pretty good money at ten cents per glass.
There were some logistical problems; whenever our pitcher ran dry, we had to send someone a block away to replenish our stock. We lost business when people would stop to buy a glass of Kool-Aid and we didn’t have the merchandise on hand to serve them. Although we assured them it would only be a couple minutes until more Kool-Aid arrived, they were not willing to wait.
“You have to run faster.” We would tell the one going for a fresh pitcher. Running with a full pitcher caused spillage and made for some very sticky staff. We learned to use two pitchers, which solved the problem, but there were other issues.
Disputes arose over whose turn it was to run back to the house for more Kool-Aid, which led to the question, who is the boss? There were heated conversations as to whom should work which position and who would handle the money. I personally enjoyed the marketing end of the business - that is, hollering and waving vigorously to draw the attention of drivers going by.
The troubles within our business were becoming increasingly more difficult to overcome. When Mom’s sugar canister was empty, we tried making a pitcher of fruit flavored Kool-Aid without sugar. That didn’t go over well and the customers complained - some even asked for their dime back. Poor product quality and turmoil amongst the staff led to our company shutting down.
Despite the few issues, we had fun. At the end of the day we were hot and sticky. We did well, but when we divided our receipts among the partners, we ended up with only around a buck each. I decided there had to be an easier way for a eleven year old kid to make a living. That’s when I discovered Grit Magazine. Media! That’s where the real money was...but that’s a different story.
I pulled the twenty dollar bill from my pocket and continued to drive to the Kwik-Trip at the corner of Baker and Broadway streets. I bought a medium size cup of ice with a lid and a red straw. Now I had plenty of smaller bills and some change; enough for a glass of lemonade and a tip.
Returning to their location on Howard Street, I signaled to turn left, parking on the side road. With my cup of ice in hand, I walked toward their stand. A small square table, painted white, had two standard size sheets of paper hanging down, taped to the front. Each bearing a hand-drawn advertisement in colorful crayon. In the breeze the signs were pushed back at an angle under the table top and I couldn’t read them.
Behind the table were two small wooden chairs, painted pink. They looked like miniature, old fashioned, oak school teacher’s chairs. On the table top there was a pitcher of pink lemonade with two poured glasses to the side, a container of ice cubes and a cash box. Spare glasses were in a box below the table.
“Would you like to buy some lemonade?” One of the girls asked. “How much is it?” I inquired. In unison, they answered, “Fifty cents.” I smiled, “Do you girls negotiate prices for a larger purchase?” They looked blankly at each other. “How much would you charge me to fill this cup with lemonade?” Both girls turned to their supervisor for advice, who was sitting in a lawn chair behind them, reading a book.
Dad closed his book and spoke up. “To negotiate means he’s asking you to give him a price to fill a bigger cup than what you’re serving.” “How much should we charge?” Asked one of the girls. Dad was going to make them do the math, “How many of your cups will it take to fill his bigger cup.” The girls studied the glasses for a moment, then answered, “Probably two.” Dad then asked, “and how much are two glasses of lemonade?” They smiled, knowing the answer, and replied together, “One dollar.”
Dad then explained, “Okay, but since he’s buying in bulk and he brought his own cup and ice, you should give him a little price break. How about seventy-five cents?” The two girls looked back at me and said, “Seventy-five cents, sir.”
“Well,” I said rubbing my chin, “my cup might hold a little more than two glasses, so how about one dollar and you fill it to the top?” “Okay,” they replied.
One of the girls held my cup steady with two hands while the other picked up their pitcher, also with both hands. Her tongue was sticking out a bit from the corner of her mouth as she focused on pouring the lemonade without spilling it. My cup held nearly all the lemonade that was left in their pitcher. She stopped pouring when the glass was full, within a half inch of the top. “Perfect!” I said.
The girl set the pitcher down and said, “That will be one dollar, please.” I snapped the lid on my cup and handed her a bill, “Here’s one dollar for the lemonade,” I said, then handed another dollar to her partner, “and here’s a tip for your great service.” With a big grin, she turned and said, “Daddy, we got a tip!” Rightfully so, Dad smiled with pride, “Good job, girls!” He told them.
I took a drink from the straw in my glass and asked, “How long have you two been in business?” One of the girls wrinkled her face with thought then replied, “About and hour and a half.” I followed up, “Has business been good? Are you selling a lot of lemonade?” “Yes,” one girl said, the other added, “Lots of cars have been stopping.” I wished them continued success for the afternoon, and chatted with Dad for a few minutes, telling him what a great job he was doing with his kids.
As I was turning to walk back to my car, the two girls were hollering, “Lemonade!” While waving vigorously at another car. Mom came out the front door of the house with a full, fresh pitcher of lemonade. I started to say, “When I was your age kid, my mom didn’t refill our pitcher - we had to get our own. Had to walk a mile in the scorching heat to get more Kool-Aid; barefoot; in the snow; uphill both ways.” But, then I thought, “Geesh, that makes me sound old.”
As I pulled away in my car, I took another pull of lemonade and thought how summer is nearly over. I wondered: How much better off would this world be if more parents put down their devices and had their kids put down their devices to open a lemonade stand in front of their house, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, on Howard Street in your town, USA.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/tom.palen.98