The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It took this black man years to open his lemonade stand. Then someone thought he was robbing it.

Vicktor Stevenson snapped this photo after police responded to his gourmet lemonade stand. Someone thought he was trying to rob it. (Vicktor Stevenson)

For months, Vicktor Stevenson chronicled the birth of his artisanal lemonade stand on Facebook and Instagram in posts punctuated with hashtags and exclamation points.

“Shazaam!!! Our Awning is going up at this very moment!!!” he wrote in May celebrating the arrival of the Gourmonade sign for his kiosk in San Francisco’s gentrifying Mission District. “Soooo exciting!!!” A few weeks later, during a trip to see newly installed custom lights, he thumbed out a post: “Soooo cool!

But his post on July 17, just a few days after Gourmonade’s grand opening, wasn’t about lemons or lights or his signature white shirt and bow tie, he told The Washington Post. It featured a police service pistol that Stevenson can’t stop thinking about and an encounter that, even a week later, leaves him rattled.

“Four cops just hopped out on me guns almost drawn took my ID at my own store,” he said on Instagram and Facebook. “This racist thing is out of control but it won’t stop me! Living my dreams like they are golden because they are lol.”

On July 16, Stevenson had hired a company to address a leak inside his kiosk, but he said its work had somehow messed up the alarm system.

He had arrived at the stand before 7 a.m. the next day to start squeezing lemons, but spent those first few minutes leaning against the building, on the phone with the alarm company. At some point, he saw a police car “cruising up the block,” he said. “I started to pay more attention to my surroundings, looking for anything that I need to not be a part of.”

Then two officers got out.

“They’re walking toward me . . . and I’m still looking for this crime scene,” he said. “Did something happen behind me? It didn’t hit me until the officer was in front of me like a foot away. I said ‘hey, did I set off the alarm system? If I did, my apologies, because I’m on the phone with the security company now.’

“They said ‘No, someone called and said there was a break in here.’ ”

Stevenson was instantly indignant. He’d sunk two years of his life, and a considerable chunk of savings and energy into his business. Now, someone thought he was robbing it.

But his logical side took over as two other officers materialized behind him. He was armed with the truth but surrounded by four lawmen with guns.

“All I remember was the cop is in front of me,” he told The Post. “His hand was at his side, by his pistol, like he was ready to pull it out if he had to.”

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Stevenson’s journey to that fateful moment on Valencia Street had started years ago in New York.

Stevenson and a buddy were sitting in a car during a snowstorm, griping about the bad weather. He told the friend he wished he was sitting anywhere but there, maybe drinking a nice glass of lemonade. Sure, they could go to a bodega to get some, but that would be a low-quality beverage, probably bottled months ago. Someone, he thought, should make a Starbucks for lemonade.

The idea wouldn’t go away. And one day, he woke at 4 a.m., sat at the kitchen table and sketched out a business plan that would consume the next two years of his life.

He took a bartending course so he could use mixology to incorporate novel ingredients into his recipes.

He applied for small-business loans, set up a crowdfunding page and pitched San Francisco’s small-business incubator. The ingredients would be organic and locally sourced, he told investors. Gourmonade would make a fresh batch every morning.

He leased the space that used to hold his wife’s favorite flower shop. “It’s already yellow,” he thought to himself during one trip to check it out. “We don’t even have to paint.”

Nudging the dream along got harder after Stevenson’s wife got pregnant. There were complications. They spent weeks in the hospital.

But last fall, they welcomed a baby boy to the world. They named him Legacy.

And on July 14, Gourmanade was serving drinks in bottles shaped like lemons.

For a few days, the biggest hiccup was a San Francisco Chronicle article that declared his $8 glass of lemonade as the latest extravagantly priced Bay Area concoction.

But on that Tuesday morning, the price point of lavender lemonade was far from his mind. A police officer was telling him to take his hands out of his pocket.

He complied, then used his key to lock and unlock the kiosk, to show the officers that he was an enterprising businessman, not a lemonade-stand burglar. It wasn’t enough. The officers asked for his identification.

Stevenson said he was hesitant to hand it over — the key should have been more than enough — but he thought complying would defuse the situation.

He was not charged with a crime or arrested, and he took a brief video of the officers as they left.

Reached Monday, the San Francisco Police Department did not immediately comment.

Stevenson, meanwhile, posted it on Facebook and Instagram, along with other, happier videos of his business, and has received a steady stream of support from people dropping by to purchase an $8 bottle of lemonade or give him a hug, or both.

He realizes now that selling lemonade is apparently the latest thing you apparently shouldn’t do while black. An ever-expanding list of people have posted about how neighbors, store clerks and perfect strangers have viewed their everyday actions through criminally tinted glasses. People shopping for underwear, falling asleep in a dorm common room or even going to a seaside overlook to read a book about Christianity. Collectively, the incidents have garnered the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack.

One moment, Stevenson said, his biggest worries were some bad publicity and a malfunctioning alarm. The next, he was trying to move as slowly and non-threateningly as possible so as to give the officers surrounding him no reason to use force.

Days later, he told The Post, he could still remember two things vividly: The officer’s hand, an inch away from his gun, and a sudden fear of not being able to come home to Legacy.

“He’s 9 months old — the best thing I’ve ever done,” he told The Post, crying. “I want to be there for him. It hits you to think that. I have so much to teach that kid. So much to share with him to get him ready to be in this kind of position — to rise above this.”

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