Published: Saturday, April 8, 2006
By Ylan Q. Mui Washington Post Staff Writer
Six-year-old Scotty Lefkowitz and his big sister, Gwen, 11, had all the makings for a perfect lemonade stand. Until their neighbors came along.
The siblings had set up a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies, fresh strawberries and a cold pitcher of lemonade on a table underneath the cherry blossoms in front of their home in the tony Kenwood neighborhood of Bethesda. Their laminated signs flapped in the warm spring breeze: $1 for lemonade.
But a few houses down Dorset Avenue, the neighbors were selling for just 25 cents a cup, undercutting them by a whopping 75 percent. So Scotty and Gwen quickly rethought their business strategy — they would advertise their bigger cups and offer free refills.
“Last year we were rookies,” Gwen explained. “Now we’re kind of experienced.”
Such are the economics of the lemonade stand. Every year when the cherry blossoms peak, the normally peaceful subdivision is thronged with visitors who come to see the snowy blooms on the 1,200 Japanese Yoshino trees that line these streets. And every year, the children of Kenwood milk it for all it’s worth.
“It teaches them commerce, and it teaches them a lot about being resourceful,” said Scotty and Gwen’s mother, Lori. “They get into it because it’s their little enterprise.”
Lemonade stands, those emblems of the lazy, warm afternoons of childhood, first went up in Kenwood around 1955. Ruthanna Swann Weber, who at 90 is the oldest resident of the neighborhood, remembers her son, who was about 7 at the time, dragging the porch furniture out to the street and selling lemonade for 5 cents along with other neighborhood children. Eventually, the kids raised the price to 10 cents. They had learned about inflation.
Now, half a century later, when children carry cellphones and credit cards, the lemonade stand has evolved. Chocolate chip cookies and cold lemonade sell as well as ever, but kids now expand their product line to include coffee for caffeine-addled adults, healthy low-carb snacks and even on-site digital photography.
More than a dozen stands were up and running last weekend, and, depending on the blossoms, they could very well be back again this weekend. The business is strictly seasonal.
The prime real estate is the grassy circle in the middle of the neighborhood and the main streets that shoot off it. Sometimes, children set up stands less than 10 feet from each other. Each works a different game.
One touts “really, really addictive” butterscotch-and-wonton-noodle concoctions. Another sells pink breast cancer awareness bracelets and pink lemonade. And one boasts of “10 years of rich Kenwood tradition.”
Charles J. Sophy, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, said children today are much more financially savvy than the generation before them. Parents increasingly are teaching kids how to manage money, and many children are exposed to finance earlier in life. Marketing consultant Gary Rudman said it’s all part of a larger movement that he calls the “mock maturity” of youth.
“They’re just that much more connected and aware of the world out there,” he said.
In Kenwood, the lemonade market has been so tight that in 1968, the neighborhood Junior Activities Committee considered creating a “central cherry blossom refreshment booth” to cut down on competition, according to committee documents. The recommendation was never passed.
“This is like a kid’s dream,” said Kenwood resident Gail Steckler, whose four children are lemonade stand veterans.
The basic principles have not changed much over the years. Lemonade is a staple, of course. Chocolate chip cookies are the most popular. And anything homemade is a sure-fire winner.
That’s a lesson the Gellers learned this year. Eric, 14, and his sister Lisa, 12, opened for business last Saturday morning with store-bought cookies studded with M&Ms along with a batch of gooey chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven and peanut butter cookies that their grandmother made. All the homemade goodies sold out.
The kids, who donate their proceeds to Children’s Hospital, had planned carefully. Eric analyzed traffic patterns to determine the best location (between two cherry trees on their front lawn.) They provided free dog bones and water to lure customers. And they advertised “car-side service,” delivering right up to car windows, much like a drive-through Starbucks.
“We actually caused a traffic jam once, I think,” Eric said.
Amid the intense competition, some stands have embarked on strategic mergers. Two years ago, 14-year-old Ian Steckler and his sister Hannah, 16, decided to join forces with some neighbors across the street. It worked well, except that operators of another rival stand kept running over and yelling “Lemonade!” to distract their customers.
Still, the best tactic of all, Ian said, is simply “being cute.”
“We’re getting a little old,” the teen said.
So this year, his adopted siblings Annie, 9, and Jackson, 8, took over the stand. Parents Gail and Steve Steckler adopted them from Russia last year, and they hope the stand will teach them a little bit about America — and hopefully some basic math, as well.
“They’re taking over the family business,” Steve Steckler said.
The Lulli siblings truly have an entrepreneurial spirit. They set up a professional Italian ice stand in the middle of the neighborhood — and they don’t even live in Kenwood.
Fifteen-year-old Sebastian Lulli and his sisters Cristina, 12, and Carolina, 11, used to live in Somerset, a neighboring community, but now they call Rockville home. Sebastian said he bought the $4,000 Italian ice machine with his older brother, Miguel, last year with money they had saved from summer jobs. Along with Kenwood, the siblings plan to hit local pools and parks.
At the Lefkowitzes’ on Saturday afternoon, Scotty and Gwen tallied the day’s earnings so far: $95. An old cigar box served as the till. The sun was still shining brightly, and the customers kept coming.
Now the only problem was that Scotty couldn’t seem to resist the merchandise.
“I’m going to eat one of my cookies,” he said matter-of-factly, then plucked one from the display.
He ate his fill, then returned to the business at hand. Mouth covered in chocolate, he bounced up and down in front of the stand and called out to passersby:
“Hi, are you guys interested in some lemonade?”