This story is part of an occasional series exploring nightlife (and daylife) in New York.
If you’ve ever spent a sunny day sitting in Prospect Park, you’ve probably met Prince Lewis.
“Welcome to restaurant Prospect Park,” he often says as he approaches people who are on dates, at parties or on picnics, and tries to entice them to buy a nutcracker, a bottled cocktail that is often sold on New York City streets. “I am excited and delighted to be your waiter. Can I get you all started with a nice Caribbean cocktail on this beautiful spring afternoon?”
Sometimes he’ll spice up his introduction to make people smile, throwing in a “bonjour!” or a compliment about how “lovely” everyone looks. Certain lines are reserved for specific circumstances; “only for the adults,” he’ll often add when there’s a toddler or child present. He might serenade those celebrating with “Happy Birthday” or even hand out a free drink.
“Sorry, there’s no smoking allowed in the park,” he solemnly told several groups of smokers last Saturday, before cracking a magnetic smile. “Unless you’re consuming a delicious Caribbean cocktail!”
“That sounds dangerous and delicious,” Maeve Cavadini, 30, said when Mr. Lewis approached her as she sat on a blanket. “I’m going to need a few hours probably before I drive.”
“If you need to come to my house to nap, I’ve got you,” her friend Melissa Barna, 32, replied.
Though the exact details vary depending on who you ask, it’s mostly agreed upon that nutcrackers were created uptown 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 credited with inventing the first nutcrackers, told GrubStreet in 2019 that he came up with the name for the drink after seeing a New York City Ballet ad.
As restaurants and bars shut down in 2020, to-go cocktails became the backbone of a socially distanced social life. And when the drinks were ripped away last June and later reinstated, it became clear how many people were fans of drinking on the move.
But nutcrackers, homemade brews that are not technically classified as to-go cocktails in New York, are still illegal, as is drinking in local parks and beaches.
Mr. Lewis, 33, visits the park to sell his $15 drinks year-round, but his peak seasons are spring and summer. On slower days — when it’s rainy, dreary or even snowing — he may only sell one or two. But on a sunny Saturday or Sunday, he can often crack $1,000.
Last Saturday, when the temperature in Brooklyn hit 90 degrees, he arrived at the park around 3 p.m. carrying two rolling bags filled with frozen (but melting) drinks. At most, he said, he can fit 60 in each bag, but that day he brought about 90 with him.
Mr. Lewis, who has his own vodka made at a factory in Wisconsin, said that it probably costs him a bit more than a dollar to make each drink. He rotates through different flavors depending on the day or week, but on that Saturday he was selling mango, mint lemonade, strawberry mint lemonade and ginger pineapple varieties mixed with vodka, along with a bright red Caribbean rum punch.
Sometimes he’ll let people negotiate his price down to $10, but it’s usually not necessary. Even when people tell him “no” off the bat, he manages to crack a joke or charm them — which is often enough to change their minds.
“Worst case scenario, if you don’t leave them with a drink, you’ll at least leave them with a smile,” he said as we looped around the park.
Mr. Lewis, who grew up in Freeport, Grand Bahama, moved to Brooklyn in 2019. He said he was inspired to enter his current line of work early in the pandemic by Brooklyn Vagabond, a masked and furloughed server who was selling drinks in Prospect Park.
Vagabond, who is in his early 30s, has kept his face and name out of articles for fear of getting into legal trouble. He said that he started selling cocktails for $10 to $15 in the park during the summer of 2020 — after his restaurant temporarily shut down — 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 that nutcrackers were traditionally “really sweet, really harsh alcohol, and it’s just going to give you a buzz,” but that many sellers found ways to rebrand and shake up the colorful drinks during the pandemic.
Vagabond said that he puts a lot of thought into his cocktails, using specific liqueurs and infusing them with herbs like mint and basil, which requires extra time and effort.
Some people balk at 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’s been selling the drinks, he’s never been stopped by the police.
“You know when I felt really comfortable?” he said. “I saw these two blonde girls selling drinks in the park. I’ve heard of gentrifying neighborhoods, but gentrifying an entire hustle? That’s new to me.”
“I said to myself, ‘OK, now I feel good,’ because the chances of the N.Y.P.D. coming into this park and tackling these two blonde girls are like, 0.1 percent,” he continued. “So if they don’t tackle them, they definitely won’t tackle me. And even if they do, I’ll have a very strong case in court.”
Yet many who sell drinks in New York’s parks are far less open with their business. Vagabond said that an article that featured him in 2020 gave him an uncomfortable amount of exposure.
“Within days of this New York Post article coming out, N.Y.P.D. was looking for my Instagram,” he said. “My worst fear came true. I got caught.”
After being let off with a warning, he decided selling in the park wasn’t worth the heightened risk and effort. Now, he said, he mostly just delivers drinks — occasionally catering events like birthdays and weddings.
“Some people think I just magically appear in the park and I’m just strolling along,” he said. “I think people miss how hard and demanding it is.”
Mr. Lewis also said that he’s hoping Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams will consider legalizing the work that nutcracker vendors do around the city.
“Don’t criminalize this, incorporate this,” he said. “I would rather pay a $200 license fee than a $200 fine.”
He said that he’s on cordial terms with the other people who sell drinks in Prospect Park — “there’s enough pie in New York City for everybody.”
The biggest obstacle he usually faces, he said, is the sheer labor involved in dragging the heavy bags of drinks through the park.
But even as dusk settled, Mr. Lewis kept his energy up.
“Sorry, we are so hung over,” one woman told him around 7:30 p.m.
“If I had known you would be here I wouldn’t have bought all of the drinks in this bag,” another said. “If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be here in this exact spot.”
By 8:30 p.m. — a little less than six hours after he arrived — Mr. Lewis had made $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 he decided to stick around another hour or so to sell a few more drinks.
“At this point, I’m just having fun,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens. They’re still here, so let’s do it.”
As he struck out with his last group of the night, he left them with his usual parting words: “Consider me a nice little daydream, just floating on by.”