Every city has its culinary peculiarities. In New York, few are as iconic and as seemingly random as the pairing of that American fast-food staple– the hot dog — with tropical drinks, specifically, papaya. New Yorkers looking for a cheap bite have long had Papaya King, or one of its its many, many imitators.
Papaya King opened in 1932. And today the chain is celebrating its 85th Birthday.
In a world of shifting food trends, a competitive hot dog market and high rents, what has kept Papaya King on their throne for some many years?
Acacia O’Connor is there to find out.
For Ralph Baldomero (BALDOMAIRO), there’s just something about Papaya King.
BALDOMERO: The snap. When you bite into a papaya there’s that crack when you bite the skin. And its roasted on the grill and it’s hot always and fresh.
O’CONNOR: And the drink. What does it taste like?
BALDOMERO: Uh! Unlike any fruit drink you ever drank. I mean how many places can you get a real Papaya Drink?
Baldomero has lived in Manhattan all his life. But today he’s doing something he’s never done: he’s eating hot dogs for breakfast.
BALDOMERO: I don’t like anything on them, I like to enjoy the meat, a little mustard a little ketchup and that’s it.
Baldomero stopped into Papaya King’s flagship shop on the corner of East 86th and 3rd Avenue this morning because he heard about their deal. He got two dogs and the store’s signature papaya drink for the unheard-of price of 32 cents each.
BALDOMERO: What was that, 98 cents it came out to? 96 cents?
XX: 95 Cents.
BALDOMERO: 95 cents. I never got it that cheap even when I was 5 years old.
He used to come to Papaya King back then with his mom. They’d stop for a hot dog and go shopping at Gimble’s Department Store, or catch a movie.
At one point there was just Papaya King. But there have been many imitators. There’s Papaya King’s stiffest competitor: spinoff, Gray’s Papaya, founded by an ex-partner in 1973. And that’s not all, over the years, there’s been, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, Papaya Place, Papaya Circle, Papaya World, Frank’s Papaya, Papaya Jack, Mike’s Papaya, Chelsea Papaya, and Papaya Dog.
Papaya King President Wayne Rosenbaum doesn’t worry about the competition.
ROSENBAUM: There’s a lot of copycats, we won’t fault them for trying to be the best, but we are the best.
Papaya King started at this very spot as Hawaiian Tropical Drinks. Founder Gus Poulos was a poor, hungry Greek immigrant working in a deli, which he later bought. Then, legend has it, on a trip to Havana, Cuba, he first tasted the glory of tropical fruit drinks. When he got back, the deli swiftly became a juice bar. Then, catering to the heavily German population of the Upper East Side, he added frankfurters to the menu.
Since that time, not much has changed, except for the rent.
ROSENBAUM: Rent is crazy. I’ll admit that. It is an iconic brand in New York, we’ve been here forever, so people know where to stop for their New York Hot Dog.
After 85 years, Rosenbaum says that it’s important to adapt. They’ve rebranded, and added things like a chicken sandwich and nachos. And for the first time they’re expanding beyond New York City. To Las Vegas.
Because if your hotdog can make it here, it can make it anywhere.
Acacia O’Connor, Columbia Radio News