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Nicholas Gray, Founder of New York Hot Dog Institution Gray’s Papaya, Dies at 86

He turned a hot dog knockoff into a citywide institution

Nighttime view of the illuminated exterior of the Gray’s Papaya restaurant.
The original location of Gray’s Papaya on the Upper West Side.
Oliver Morris/Getty Images

Nicholas Gray, the founder of Gray’s Papaya, a storefront whose pairing of hot dogs and papaya juice turned it into a citywide institution, died on Friday. The New York Times reports that the cause of death was complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. He was 86.

Born in Chile, Gray worked as a discontented stockbroker on Wall Street. He quit his job to open his first restaurant, a franchised location of Papaya King on the Upper West Side, in 1973. (It’s since closed.) Two years later, he split off from the iconic brand and opened Gray’s Papaya at 2090 Broadway, on the corner of West 72nd Street.

The storefront became famous for its low prices that undercut Papaya King by a few cents. From the time of opening until 1999, the restaurant sold hot dogs for 50 cents each. In 1982, the restaurant launched its famed Recession Special — two hot dogs and a papaya juice for $1.95. It’s still offered today, though it now costs $6.45.

The restaurant expanded and contracted over the years: There was a location of Gray’s Papaya in Greenwich Village, from 1987 to 2014, and two hot dog shops in Midtown, which had both closed by 2021. Only the original on the Upper West Side remains today.

The business has no plans of closing following Gray’s death, according to the Times. The shop has multiple years left on its lease, which its owners intend to renew. “Long live Gray’s Papaya,” Natasha Gray, Nicholas Gray’s daughter, told the publication.

In addition to Gray’s Papaya and the new location of Papaya King, several establishments advertising hot dogs and papaya juice have managed to hang on, according to the Times. The list includes Papaya Dog in the West Village, Chelsea Papaya to the north, Len’s Papaya in the Financial District, and Fulton Hot Dog King in Downtown Brooklyn.