All 13-year-old Cody Gehrke wanted to do was sell lemonade from a stand in downtown Ojai.
But after receiving several anonymous complaints, the city put the squeeze on the eighth-grader last summer for operating without a business license.
Undaunted, Cody vowed to fight City Hall. But it was the state that got him in the end.
Under state laws enforced by Ventura County, selling homemade lemonade for profit is illegal unless it is mixed in a restaurant and sold from a cart equipped with a sink and running water, said Elizabeth Huff, district coordinator for the Ventura County Environmental Health Department. Vendors also must have permission to use a bathroom within 200 feet of their carts, she said.
"I hope this doesn't sound like we're terrible monsters--we've certainly got much more important things to do than busting kids with corner lemonade stands," Huff said. "But if someone calls and asks us, or it comes to our attention . . . there's nothing in the state Health Code that says that if you're a kid, you're exempt."
Far from bitter about having to comply with state law, Cody switched this summer to peddling bottled products, including Evian water, Dr. Pepper and Hawaiian Punch, from a homemade cart that fits on the back of his bicycle. Such vendors are also required to get permits from the county health department, but do not have to install sinks on their carts because they are not selling products that could be contaminated by exposure to air, Huff said.
Even though Cody's overhead has increased dramatically and his profits have virtually evaporated, Cody said it all has been a valuable experience.
"I want to be a businessman someday," Cody said. "People tell me I won't make money for a long time, but I know that. They think because I'm young, I don't know anything."
The lemonade saga began last summer when Cody, discouraged by slow curbside sales on his block, started dispensing the stuff--for 25 cents a glass--from a thermos he wheeled on a skateboard. He said he had made a $200 profit in two weeks when the city notified him that he was breaking the law.
The city and the Ojai Chamber of Commerce had received anonymous complaints. As Cody tells it, "the merchants decided to get me out of there because I was taking all their business away."
Because Cody wanted to set up his stand in a redevelopment zone, he had to get a permit from the city Redevelopment Agency. But the summer passed before Cody could surmount all the bureaucratic hurdles.
After mastering such esoterica as how to file a fictitious business name, Cody got a city business license and resale permit this summer to peddle drinks at local softball games and on the Ojai Trail, a nine-mile-long path for bikers, joggers and equestrians.
"I'm too young to have a major crimes record, so that was easy," he said of the licensing process.
Then, Cody and his 19-year-old brother, Brent Snyder Jr. fashioned his dispensary by mounting a $200 garden cart on the back of his bike and covering it with an elevator ceiling screen. The refrigeration system is "six packs of blue ice," Cody said.
Finally, Cody named his business "The Oasis" and designed a corporate logo featuring a bottle floating next to a tropical island with a palm tree, two coconuts and a starfish.
"It's like you're dying of thirst and there's drink right there when you need it," he said of his sign.
But business has not been brisk. Unlike many stores, which sell bottled and canned drinks for three times their wholesale cost, Cody only charges double what he pays, or 50 cents for a Pepsi, for instance. The most he's made per day so far is $36, and sales have been as low as $6 daily.
Cody said part of the problem is that bikers and joggers on the Ojai Trail don't generally have their wallets with them or else carry water bottles. But his mother, fashion model Yarrow Pallo, said competition from another youngster selling lemonade on the trail may also be responsible.
But Cody, now a seasoned businessman himself, called City Hall to complain that his competitor does not have a business license, she said.