This story is part of an occasional series about nightlife (and daylife) in New York.
If you’ve ever sat in Prospect Park on a sunny day, you’ve probably met Prince Lewis.
“Welcome to Prospect Park restaurant,” he often says when approaching people on dates, parties, or picnics, trying to entice them to buy a Nutcracker, a bottled cocktail often sold on the streets of New York City. “I am excited and delighted to be your waiter. May I help you all on your way with a nice Caribbean cocktail on this beautiful spring afternoon?”
Sometimes he’ll spice up his introduction to make people laugh, with a “bonjour!” or a compliment about how ‘sweet’ everyone looks. Certain lines are reserved for specific circumstances; “for adults only,” he often adds when a toddler or child is present. He can serenade those celebrating with “Happy Birthday” or even hand out a free drink.
“Sorry, there is no smoking allowed in the park,” he said solemnly to several groups of smokers last Saturday, before giving a magnetic smile. “Unless you drink a delicious Caribbean cocktail!”
“That sounds dangerous and delicious,” Maeve Cavadini, 30, said as Mr. Lewis approached her, sitting on a blanket. “I’ll probably need a few hours before riding.”
“If you need to come to my house to sleep, I’ve got you,” her friend Melissa Barna, 32, replied.
While the exact details vary depending on who you ask, it is generally agreed that nutcrackers were made in the city in the 1990s.
José Chu, who worked as a manager at the 101st Street and Broadway location of Flor de Mayo, a well-known Chino-Latino restaurant that invented the first nutcrackers, told GrubStreet in 2019 that he came up with the name for the drink after seeing it. from a New York City Ballet advertisement.
When restaurants and bars closed in 2020, to-go cocktails became the backbone of a socially distant social life. And when the drinks were snatched and later put back into use last June, it became clear how many people were fans of drinking on the go.
But nutcrackers, homemade concoctions that aren’t technically classified as to-go cocktails in New York, are still illegal, as is drinking in local parks and beaches.
Mr. Lewis, 33, frequents the park to sell his $15 drinks all year round, but his peak seasons are spring and summer. On slower days—when it’s raining, gloomy, or even snowing—he may only sell one or two. But on a sunny Saturday or Sunday, he can often make $1,000.
Last Saturday, when the temperature in Brooklyn hit 90 degrees, he arrived at the park around 3 p.m. with two rolling bags filled with frozen (but melting) drinks. He said at most 60 fit in each bag, but that day he had about 90 with him.
Mr. Lewis, who has his own vodka made at a facility in Wisconsin, said it would probably cost him just over a dollar to make each drink. He alternates with different flavors depending on the day or week, but on that Saturday he sold mango, mint lemonade, strawberry mint lemonade and ginger pineapple mixed with vodka, along with a bright red Caribbean rum punch.
Sometimes he lets people negotiate his price up to $10, but most of the time it isn’t necessary. Even when people say “no” to him right away, he manages to joke or charm them—which is often enough to change his mind.
“Worst-case scenario, if you don’t leave them with a drink, at least you leave them with a smile,” he said as we walked through the park.
Mr. Lewis, who grew up in Freeport, Grand Bahama, moved to Brooklyn in 2019. He said he was inspired to go into his current job early in the pandemic by Brooklyn Vagabond, a masked furlough server who sold drinks in Prospect Park.
Vagabond, who is in his early thirties, has kept his face and name from articles for fear of legal trouble. He said that in the summer of 2020 – after his restaurant was temporarily closed – he started selling cocktails for $10 to $15 in the park to support his family.
“None of the restaurants were open; the beaches were closed,” he said. “The only places to be were people’s backyards or the park.”
He said nutcrackers have traditionally been “very sweet, very hard alcohol, and it’ll just give you a buzz,” but many vendors have found ways to rename and shake the colorful drinks during the pandemic.
Vagabond said he pays a lot of attention to his cocktails, using specific liqueurs and infusing them with herbs like mint and basil, which takes extra time and effort.
Some people forgo the idea of spending $15 on a nutcracker. But as Mr. Lewis jokes about his drink, “I prefer the gentrified term – ‘craft cocktail’.”
He also said that in the nearly two years since he sold the drinks, he has never been stopped by the police.
“You know when I felt really comfortable?” he said. “I saw these two blond girls selling drinks in the park. I’ve heard about gentrifying neighborhoods, but gentrifying a whole crowd? That’s new to me.”
“I said to myself, ‘Okay, now I’m fine,’ because the probability of the NYPD entering this park and tackling these two blonde girls is about 0.1 percent,” he continued. “So if they don’t tackle them, they certainly won’t tackle me. And even if they do, I have a very strong case in court.”
Yet many who sell drinks in New York’s parks are much less open with their business. Vagabond said an article featuring him in 2020 gave him an uneasy amount of exposure.
“Within days of this article coming out in the New York Post, the NYPD was looking for my Instagram,” he said. “My biggest fear came true. I got caught.”
After being sent off with a warning, he decided that selling in the park was not worth the increased risk and effort. Now, he said, he mostly just delivers drinks — occasionally catering events like birthdays and weddings.
“Some people think I magically appear in the park and I’m just out for a walk,” he said. “I think people miss how difficult and demanding it is.”
Mr. Lewis also said he hopes Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams will consider legalizing the work nutcracker salesmen do in the city.
“Don’t criminalize this, but record this,” he said. “I’d rather pay a $200 license fee than a $200 fine.”
He said he’s on good terms with the other people selling drinks in Prospect Park — “there’s plenty of pie in New York City for everyone.”
The biggest obstacle he usually faces, he said, is the enormous labor involved in dragging the heavy bags of drinks around the park.
But even as dusk fell, Mr. Lewis kept his energy up.
“Sorry, we’re such a hangover,” a woman told him around 7:30 p.m.
“If I’d known you’d be here, I wouldn’t have bought all the drinks in this bag,” said another. “When you come back tomorrow, I’ll be right here in this place.”
By 8:30 p.m. — just under six hours after he arrived — Mr. Lewis had earned $560 through Venmo, $40 through Cash App, $51 through Zelle, and $410 in cash.
With $1,061 in sales and tips, he had already surpassed his goal for the day, but decided to stay another hour to sell a few more drinks.
“Right now I’m just having fun,” he said. “What happens, happens. They’re still here, so let’s do it.”
As he went through with his last group of the night, he left them with his usual parting words: “Consider me a nice little daydream, just float by.”