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Let's Do Launch

A New York Chain Rolls Out Its Hot Dogs, and Hopes They'll Be Met With Relish

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page C01


The Papaya King here at the corner of 86th Street and Third Avenue is basically an indoor hot dog stand, though calling it that is like calling the Louvre a fancy shack with some art inside. The dogs served here -- "tastier than filet mignon!" according to a registered trademark -- are a greasy, down-market landmark in a city where everyone is forever plotting their next meal.

Legend has it that the Beatles stopped by during a tour of the United States in 1965. Julia Child picked the franks as her favorite in a taste test. Bill Cosby is a regular. And there have been countless movie and sitcom cameos, including the ultimate local cultural touchstone -- an episode of "Seinfeld."

"There's only one mecca. The question: How do you take what's great here and replicate it?" asks Dan Horan, CEO of Papaya King, about taking the N.Y. landmark national. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"I don't want a movie hot dog!" whines Kramer, begging to leave the line at a cineplex. "I want a Papaya King hot dog!"

The special -- $4.19 for two dogs and your choice of papaya, mango, piña colada, coconut champagne, strawberry or banana daiquiri -- routinely shows up on lists of the city's great food bargains. Though the price has inched up over the decades, Papaya King has offered a variation of the same deal, on this very corner, since the Hoover administration.

Tums sold separately.

This local treasure will soon go national, if all goes according to plan. Papaya Kings are supposed to start popping up around the country in hundreds of malls, airports and main streets -- including sites in Washington and Baltimore -- in the coming months and years. This might sound like a fairly conventional goal for some ambitious fast-food entrepreneurs, but here's the thing: No one has ever launched a hot dog franchise that stretches from coast to coast. Nobody, actually, has even come close. Not a nearly vanished chain called Dog N Suds, which tried years ago; not Nathan's, which tried more recently; and not Wienerschnitzel, which has 350 stores, mostly in the Southwest, but according to a company spokesman, no plans to head east.

"I'm a marketing professor," says Peter Sealey of the University of California at Berkeley, "and if a student came to me with an idea for a national fast-food hot dog chain, I'd flunk them. Why has it never worked for anybody else? Why?"

Dan Horan thinks he knows the answer. The CEO of Papaya King since 1999, Horan was hired to turn this bustling little legend into a powerhouse brand. He thinks his product is tasty enough and cheap enough to sell anywhere, and he's bet five years of his life on that hunch. He knows that history has been cruel to everyone who's dreamed of building a McDonald's for franks.

Then there's the trick of exporting an institution as quirky as Papaya King. When you look at the particulars -- the menu, the staff -- it doesn't look like the sort of operation you can order from a kit. Well, you could order it from a kit but it wouldn't be the same.

"This place is mecca," Horan said one recent afternoon, leaning against the Papaya King counter and gesturing around his fiefdom of 450 square feet. "There's only one mecca. The question: How do you take what's great here and replicate it?"

Tropical Beginnings

The Papaya King story started in 1932, soon after a Greek immigrant and deli owner named Gus Poulos came across papaya and mango concoctions on vacations in Florida and Cuba. When he couldn't find anything like it in Manhattan, he closed his deli and started selling juice. Hawaiian Tropical Drinks, as the place was then known, looks in photos like a tiki bar, with bananas and pineapples hanging from the ceiling and a long counter lined with imitation jungle grass.

The neighborhood was then composed largely of German and Eastern European immigrants, so hot dogs were added to the menu in 1937, giving rise to what's got to be one of the strangest food-and-drink combinations in the history of takeout. Poulos changed the name of his company after a customer, purportedly a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, dubbed him "Papaya King." His son, Peter, worked for him for years, as did his nephew, Alex Poulos, who can still be found behind the grill most weekday afternoons.

"I've been here, at this location, for 31 years," says Alex Poulos during an afternoon break. He has just put the finishing touches on a vintage photograph of the original storefront that he had framed. "World's first juice bar," it says in block type underneath.

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