Hayli Martenez lemonade stand
Hayli Martenez at her lemonade stand in Kankakee, Illinois.

About one-third of Kankakee residents live below the poverty line. The city is also home to one of the highest crime rates in the state.

Eleven-year-old Hayli Martenez is trying to change that.

“A lot of little girls around here might not want to start a business,” she said. “But I know that they can. And they would actually love to.”

Like many Kankakee kids, Hayli does not come from a wealthy background. And after city officials demanded she shut down her neighborhood lemonade stand, she was made to feel like a criminal.

Hayli runs Haylibug Lemonade with the help of her mom, Iva. They started their sidewalk business in 2017. One cup costs 50 cents. And the proceeds go to Hayli’s college fund.

“It was kind of scary [at first] because we liked to stay in the house. We didn’t like to come outside because of all the stuff happening around here,” Hayli said.

“As we kept doing it, I got to see everybody smile when they tasted my lemonade. It was just … wow. They were lining up to get my lemonade.”

But the city’s code cops are having none of it.

Soon after the Kankakee Daily Journal profiled Haylibug Lemonade in July, the Martenezes got a visit from the city and county health department, telling them to shutter the stand or risk fines.

Illinois is one of 14 states where residents are allowed to set up lemonade stands without a permit, according to Country Time Lemonade.

But health officials cited concern over the Martenezes’ home. Because of a dispute with the water company, which included Iva being incorrectly charged for service on a neighboring property, and falling behind on bills, they did not have running water in the house behind their lemonade stand. They often sleep at friends’ homes overnight but stay by the stand during the day.

Iva and Hayli make their lemonade with bottled water, not tap. Their sources at the local grocery store always let them know when Hayli’s supplies are on sale.

Where city regulators see opportunities to intervene, any teacher or businessperson sees the hallmarks of a good entrepreneur: Perseverance, problem-solving and putting customers first.

For now, Hayli is serving lemonade and asking for donations. Not charging.

Illinois has a reputation for making business harder than it needs to be for entrepreneurs across the state. But often forgotten are the home-based businesses that make up the fabric of any strong community: whether it’s a kid’s lemonade stand or a grandmother’s famous bake sale cookies.

That’s one reason then-Gov. Pat Quinn signed Illinois’ “Cupcake Law” in 2014. Passed after Madison County officials shut down an 11-year-old girl’s $200-a-month cupcake business, it allows home bakeries to be free and clear of professional certification requirements and inspections, as long as the seller makes no more than $1,000 per month and labels their items.

But there’s a hitch: local governments have to pass an additional ordinance for the cupcake law to take effect. And just eight of Illinois’ 102 counties have adopted it, as of 2018. The Kankakee County Board voted 12-11 against establishing a cupcake law in 2018.

The cupcake law wouldn’t apply to Haylibug Lemonade. But hostility to home-based businesses prevents thousands of Illinois children like her, not to mention adults, from serving their community through food.

That strips many young people of a critical learning opportunity. And for those who have few other options in order to make ends meet, they run the risk of hefty fines and embarrassment.

Health codes aren’t going away anytime soon. And no one is arguing against effective prevention of food-borne illnesses. But regulators should recognize that ensuring community health doesn’t just take the form of surprise inspections and heavy-handed regulations. It means allowing people to share their own special talents with their neighborhood, even if they don’t have the money or clout of an established business.

Hayli Martenez is not a threat that Kankakee needs to snuff out.

She is a blessing.

Austin Berg is a Chicago-based writer with the Illinois Policy Institute who wrote this column for The Center Square. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

Contributing Columnist

Austin Berg's award-winning work has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, and he has appeared on ABC 7 Chicago and WTTW. Berg was also the writer of the documentary film “Madigan: Power. Privilege. Politics.”