This story is part of an occasional series exploring nightlife (and everyday life) in New York City.
If you’ve ever spent a sunny day sitting in Prospect Park, you’ve probably met Prince Lewis.
“Welcome to Prospect Park Restaurant,” he often says as he approaches people who have dates, parties, or picnics, and tries to trick them into buying a Nutcracker, a bottled cocktail that is often sold on the streets of New York. “I’m excited and delighted to be your server. Can I get you started with a nice Caribbean cocktail on this beautiful spring afternoon?”
Sometimes he will spice up his introduction to make people smile, adding a “hello!” or a compliment on everyone’s beauty. Some lines are reserved for special circumstances; “only for adults”, he often adds when there is a toddler or child present. He could serenade those celebrating with “Happy Birthday” or even hand out a free drink.
“Sorry, no smoking in the park,” he said solemnly to several groups of smokers last Saturday, before cracking a magnetic smile. “Unless you drink a delicious Caribbean cocktail!”
“It looks dangerous and delicious,” Maeve Cavadini, 30, said when Mr Lewis approached her as she sat on a blanket. “I’ll probably need a few hours before driving.”
“If you need to come over to my house for a nap, I’ve got you,” her friend Melissa Barna, 32, replied.
Although the exact details vary depending on who you ask, it’s generally accepted that the Nutcrackers were created in the 1990s near where Harlem meets the Upper West Side.
José Chu, who worked as a manager at 101st Street and Broadway at Flor de Mayo, a well-known Chinese-Latin restaurant credited with inventing the first nutcrackers, told GrubStreet in 2019 that he had found the name of the drink after seeing an advertisement of the New York City Ballet.
As restaurants and bars closed in 2020, cocktails to go became the backbone of a socially distanced social life. And when the drinks were axed last June and then reinstated, it became apparent that many people were fans of the drink on the go.
But nutcrackers, house brews that aren’t technically classified as take-out cocktails in New York City, are still illegal, as is drinking at 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 raining, dull or even snowing – he can only sell one or two. But on a sunny Saturday or Sunday, it can often break $1,000.
Last Saturday, when the temperature in Brooklyn reached 90 degrees, he arrived at the park around 3 p.m. carrying two wheeled bags filled with icy (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 it likely costs him just over a dollar to make each drink. He alternates different flavors depending on the day or week, but that Saturday he was selling varieties of mango, mint lemonade, strawberry lemonade, and ginger pineapple mixed with vodka, as well as a bright red Caribbean rum punch.
Sometimes he lets people negotiate his price down to $10, but that’s usually not necessary. Even when people tell him “no” outright, he manages to prank 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 walked 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 job by Brooklyn Vagabond, a masked, off-duty waiter who sold drinks at Prospect Park.
Vagabond, who is in her early 30s, has kept her face and name off the news for fear of getting in legal trouble. He said he started selling cocktails for $10 to $15 at the park in the summer of 2020 — after his restaurant was temporarily closed — 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 “a really sweet, really hard liquor, and it’s just going to give you a buzz,” but that many vendors have found ways to rebrand and shake up the colorful drinks during the pandemic.
Vagabond said 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 are reluctant to spend $15 on a nutcracker. But as Mr Lewis jokes about his drink, “I prefer the term gentrified – ‘craft cocktail’.”
He also said that in almost two years that he had been selling drinks, he had never been arrested 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 gentrification of neighborhoods, but gentrification of a whole stampede? This is new to me.
“I was like, ‘OK, now I feel good,’ because the odds of the NYPD walking into this park and going after these two blondes is 0.1 percent,” he continued. “So if they don’t attack them, they certainly won’t attack me. And even if they do, I will have a very strong case in court.
Yet many of those selling drinks in New York City parks are far less forthcoming with their business. Vagabond said an article that featured him in 2020 gave him uncomfortable exposure.
“A few days after this New York Post article appeared, the NYPD was looking for my Instagram,” he said. “My worst fear has come true. I’ve been caught.”
After receiving a warning, he decided selling in the park wasn’t worth the increased risk and effort. Now, he said, he only delivers drinks — occasionally catering events like birthdays and weddings.
“Some people think I magically appear in the park and just walk around,” he said. “I think people miss how difficult and demanding it is.”
Mr Lewis also said he hoped Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams would consider legalizing the work of nutcracker vendors in the city.
“Don’t criminalize this, incorporate this,” he said. “I would 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 enough pie in New York for everyone.”
The biggest hurdle he typically faces, he said, is the extensive labor required to drag the heavy bags of drinks through the park.
But even at dusk, Mr. Lewis kept his energy.
“Sorry, we’re so hungover,” a woman told him around 7:30 p.m.
“If I had known you would be here, I wouldn’t have bought all the drinks in this bag,” said another. “If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be there at that exact spot.”
By 8.30pm – just under six hours after arriving – Mr Lewis had won $560 via Venmo, $40 via Cash App, $51 via Zelle and $410 in cash.
With $1,061 in sales and tips, he had already exceeded his goal for the day, but he decided to stick around for about an hour longer to sell a few more drinks.
“At this point, I’m just having fun,” he said. “What has to happen will happen. They’re still here, so let’s go.
As he left with his last group of the night, he left them with his usual parting words: “Think of me as a nice little daydream, just floating around.”