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The Rise and Fall of Papaya King

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Like every native New Yorker, I take my bagels and hotdogs seriously. But my $1 bagels and $2 dogs are a thing of the past. (Pro tip: this is another way of starting a story with “when I was a kid.) While a delicious bagel place can be found in almost any neighborhood in NYC, hot dogs are harder to come by in today’s New York. Only three companies––Coney Island’s Nathan’s, Gray’s Papaya, and Papaya King––but today, we are exclusively waving goodbye to His Majesty the Papaya King himself.

Originally opening in 1932 on 86th and 3rd, their flagship home was founded, and the tropical drinks stand was born. Over time the classic hotdogs were added to the menu, and the neon-orange sign was first hung in 1950. From there, Papaya King grew more successful, and they began opening shops across the nation ranging from Baltimore, Miami, San Fransisco, and Hawai’i. But, like every success, opportunists tried to mimic the shop, but none undoubtedly succeeded except for one. From the names themselves, Gray’s Papaya and Papaya King have eerily similar titles because they are somehow intertwined. Depending on the source, the story varies but generally speaking, as Papaya King began to franchise in the 1970s, Mr. Nicholas Gray took part in these expansions. But in 1973, Gray opened his own hotdog shop, Gray’s Papaya, and the stores have stood as enemies to this day. (Don’t tell anyone, but they kind of taste the same, both spectacular.)

After the original owner, Greek immigrant Constantine "Gus" Poulos, passed away, his son and nephew took ownership of the company, hoping to expand again. But, despite their initial success, the chain dwindled, never genuinely booming. The young owners attempted to open 10-12 stores accord the east coast in the early 2000s but failed to accomplish these goals. They eventually sold to a group of anonymous donors and Wayne Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum took charge with the lofty goal of restoring Papaya King to its former glory, Rosenbaum took control. But he also struggled to expand in New York and West to Nevada and Los Angelos. Rosenbaum also attempted to start a Papaya King catering food truck and hotdog stands, but these too have failed.

Today, word on the street is that Papaya King is closing down for good as the building of Papaya King’s 90-year shop is being demolished: for you guessed it, another highrise. As unfortunate as this is, is it time? When I was a kid, the Original was two classic dogs with a 16 oz drink, which was $5.50; for a singular hotdog, it was $2, but today one hotdog has doubled in price. As the nostalgia for quality food for quality price rings true for loyal customers, but a 100% increase leaves a bad taste on such a staple icon of the Upper East Side and New York City as a whole.

Created by an immigrant, Papaya King has survived, and at times thrived, for over 90 years.

Papaya King was the king of cheap eats and a family-run business, but now the king is owned by faceless funders and full of exorbitant prices. The king is dead.

The last remnants of Papaya King.

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I will never forget the smell walking in there! Nor the feel of the styrofoam cup…..UWS I know you no more.

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