Rebound: Businessing While Black

Gourmonade owner Vicktor Stevenson reflects on racism, entrepreneurship, and the uphill battle faced by Black business owners, as he continues finding new ways to sell his gourmet lemonade in the third installment of our 4-part series

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It was the viral video that thrust Vicktor Stevenson into the spotlight: A group of San Francisco police officers approaching him, hands on their guns, as he stood outside his tiny gourmet lemonade store one morning in 2018.

Stevenson said he was later told a neighbor had called the police, suspecting he was a burglar. Ironically, he had been on the phone with his security company, ensuring the alarm system was working, when officers arrived.

"When I started my business, I never took into account my race," Stevenson said. "I never took into account being Black or not being Black — but that's something that I just think plays a part."

Stevenson's story garnered attention a full two years before the Black Lives Matter movement shined a national spotlight on the challenges faced by Black business owners. It earned him a loyal following from neighbors who said they want to see more entrepreneurs of color and small family-owned businesses in San Francisco's Mission district.

But faced with an ongoing pandemic that's left the neighborhood's usually bustling sidewalks unusually quiet, Stevenson continues to look for new opportunities at grocery stores and farmer's markets, hoping to find a steady flow of thirsty customers in time for summer.

The Backstory

We first met Vicktor Stevenson wearing a bow tie and a big smile as he stood in front of his tiny store in San Francisco's Mission District.

He was the city's newest viral sensation — a young entrepreneur with the audacity to charge a whopping eight dollars for a bottle of fresh-squeezed lemonade — and it seemed the whole neighborhood had shown up to see what the fuss was about.

"It has a sharp, sour flavor that I really like," one customer commented.

"Well, you know, it's cheaper than real estate," another quipped.

For two years, the business grew, and by early 2020, Stevenson had three other people working for him, squeezing lemons in the kitchen and selling more than half a dozen flavors of Gourmonade to thirsty customers.

And then, the world shut down.

Lemonade is no longer just for sidewalk stands. For Vicktor Stevenson, owner of San Francisco’s Gourmonade LLC, gourmet lemonade is a passion project that has cultivated a loyal local following. But when the pandemic hit, statewide shutdowns gave his juice company the squeeze and Stevenson had to decide whether to focus on serving his “Gourmonade fam” or protecting his real-life family.

"In the beginning, it was scary," Stevenson said. "We closed down for a good three months. I came to terms with possibly closing down the business completely. ... My main goal was just to keep my family safe. And so, if the business had to go, it had to go."

But as summer began, Stevenson came across a company that would help Gourmonade deliver its products directly to customers. He felt it would allow the business to open up again in a safe way — eliminating the risk of standing out on the sidewalk and interacting with customers all afternoon, in the tiny outdoor storefront without room for plexiglass or social distancing.

Over the months that followed, Stevenson built up a base of loyal subscribers who order his fresh-squeezed lemonade by the gallon or by the bottle every 1-2 weeks. Some were already loyal customers, but others found Gourmonade for the first time on social media.

As the raging pandemic continued to devastate Black-owned businesses, Vicktor Stevenson fought to protect his burgeoning lemonade empire by doubling down with a new brick and mortar location in Oakland, Calif. - but after losing the commercial space, Stevenson realized that in order to keep his business going, he’d need to pivot by expanding his company in unexpected ways.

"About 96 percent of our sales come from social media, from Instagram," Stevenson said. "We call them 'Gourmonade fam,' because it's literally a family base we have, not really a fan base."

And with the summer's social justice movement shining a spotlight on Black-owned businesses, Stevenson said that family has continued to grow.

"I'm thankful for them, because they came for the story, or they came for whatever reason, but they stayed for the product," he said. "And that's what we're here to sell, is great lemonade."

Stevenson was always an early riser, but now he's starting his days earlier than ever — doing his kitchen work as early as 4:30 a.m. on some days. He shares the kitchen with another business, and working at odd hours allows him to avoid direct contact with other workers, he said, lowering his risk of contracting COVID-19.

The day starts with squeezing lemons, and then preparing other ingredients — slicing fruit and brewing tea or coffee for Gourmonade's six year-round flavors (including caffeinated and sugar-free varieties) or the numerous seasonal flavors on offer.

But as the tea steeps and the lemon juice flows in the kitchen, there's a problem brewing back in the storage area.

"Right here, this used to be bottles — from the top to the bottom," Stevenson explained. "We have about four packages left. That's it."

When Gourmonade launched, Stevenson said, he could buy glass bottles on an as-needed basis, stocking up on as many as he thought he could sell during the course of a sunny weekend. With the price of those bottles going up, and a move to subscription-based delivery, Gourmonade has moved to plastic bottles.

"Going plastic is going to help us grow and scale — it's a lighter packaging and everything like that," Stevenson said. "But the minimum orders are pretty ridiculous. We've got to figure out how we're going to fund the re-up for the bottles so that we can continue to operate."

Stevenson said he has a couple of loans out, and is applying for another one — adding he'd be open to taking on investors if the right ones come along.

In the mean time, he said, "My wife keeps me positive, and seeing my kid's smile keeps me positive."

Stevenson's son Legacy, who's now three years old, has almost mastered pronouncing the name of the family business.

"The fact that now he's saying 'Gourmonade' keeps me even more positive — so I want to keep it around for him, so when he's older, Gourmonade still exists," Stevenson said. "So losing is not an option."

ABOUT REBOUND: From dealing with restrictions brought forth by COVID-19 to wrangling with issues of equality and representation, Black-owned businesses are doing everything they can to rise up and be heard. 

REBOUND tells the stories of three Black-owned businesses and how they are persevering through difficult times, as well as how they’re using creativity and innovation to make their mark on a changing society. 

We supplied each business with a camera so they could take us behind the scenes themselves. REBOUND shows us their stories.

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