The take down of a lemonade stand raises some questions

Summer is a time to create with cardboard boxes. Challenge kids to make a lemonade stand or a rocket ship from a box. How many things can they imagine?

Just when I think I may not find something to write about during a slow news week, Denver police officers shut down a kids’ Memorial Day lemonade stand for not having a permit. The illicit lemonade enterprise was set up in a Denver park near the family’s home. The miscreants, ages 4 and 6, were selling drinks for charity and their under-market value wares were cutting into the profits of licensed vendors at the nearby Denver Arts Festival. Naturally the vendors had to call in authorities.

This crime show-worthy episode raises some interesting questions: Are children’s lemonade stands illegal in Denver? Why did the police intervene when they had real policing to do? Why didn’t the drink vendors talk to the kids’ parents about moving the stand rather than lodging a complaint with officers? Why is it generally unlawful to sell food and drinks without a permit?

So I made a couple of calls. Here’s what I found out: A lemonade stand’s legal status depends on the location. If the lemonade stand is in or within 300 feet of select city parks, the stand must get a $100 permit (plus a $25 application fee) for the day. Homemade lemonade wouldn’t likely meet health and safety standards for such a permit. So the kids would have to sell prepackaged lemonade or get a licensed commercial kitchen.

Could these kids have just moved their stand from the park to the front of their house? No, the house is within 300 feet of the park. The kids would have to find a house farther away. Denver zoning laws do not address lemonade stands so unless there’s a complaint by a neighbor regarding noise or sidewalk congestion or a nearby park, a temporary lemonade stand will likely be left alone.

So why not leave the lemonade stand in question alone? Officers must respond to all complaints I was told. Apparently even trivial ones. At least off-duty officers working the art event responded rather than SWAT. Wouldn’t it have been better, more neighborly, if the vendors approached the parents and explained the situation? They’d paid for the permit and other vendor expenses for the privilege of selling refreshments to Denver Arts Festival patrons and didn’t need to be undercut, even if by mistake. One could sympathize with their business concerns had they not sent officers to bust a charity lemonade stand run by a 4 and 6 year old.

So why do we have these permitting ordinances anyway? These restrictions, said one Denver agency I spoke with, are in place to protect the public from buying food that might pose a health and safety risk.

Regulation has its place in maintaining public safety. While the three Bs of free market accountability – bad press, blistering reviews, and big lawsuits – curtail most egregious business behavior, it’s still reassuring that a health department official has checked the back corners of the restaurant for roaches. There is a cost to these regulations, however, especially to new and small scale entrepreneurs who are walled out of the marketplace.

There was a time when I regularly bought food from an illegal food operator. Back in the early 90s when I worked at a retail cart at the Tabor Center I used to buy $2 burritos from a little, old woman. “Meat, no meat?” she’d ask in broken English and pluck a warm, slightly spicy egg and chorizo burrito from her hand-held cooler. Always looking over her shoulder for security guards, she’d go from cart to cart until the cooler was empty. We didn’t need an agency to protect us from the delicious black market burritos.

While I appreciate some level of regulation of large, faceless enterprises, I wonder if there shouldn’t be a legal space for a kid’s lemonade stand or the burrito lady, people for whom a commercial kitchen is not an option.

Colorado began a discussion about sensible deregulation a few years ago with the passage of the Cottage Foods Act which allows the small scale sale of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and low-risk foods such as honey, jam, tea, and bread products. Perhaps this unfortunate lemonade stand incident could reopen the discussion?

Krista Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer

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