"I'm being a little tongue-in-cheek," Poulos admits. "But when we started making tropical drinks, all the pulps and purees were made on the premises."
By conservative estimate, Poulos has served well over 5 million franks in his life. He started working here part time when he was 14, went to college and earned an electrical engineering degree from New York University, and started full time at the 86th and Third location in his mid-twenties.
"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)
"It's not rocket science," he says of manning the grill. "It's a matter of flow. Adjusting the flame, making sure that the rolls are toasted, not too much water on the sauerkraut, keeping the condiments heated, keeping the grill neat."
Nearly everyone in this place, it turns out, has worked here for more than 10 years, and some for more than 20. It's a good perch for a view of New York life at its weirdest, and there's never a shortage of celebrity sightings. Rodney Dangerfield used to come by at night in a limo, then send his driver out to pick up a couple of dogs, waving from the back seat. Woody Allen filmed a scene for "Manhattan" here, but the scene was cut. And then there was that Amy Irving thing.
"She came in here for a scene in that movie, the hell was it called? . . . 'Crossing Delancey,' " recalls Poulos. "And she's supposed to be in here eating a frank. But thing is, she doesn't eat beef. So we had to go to the supermarket to get turkey franks. And they were filming from like 6 in the evening till 4 in the morning and they wanted the grill to look fresh. So all night we were running to the supermarket for turkey franks."
Alex Poulos was around when his uncle Gus tried franchising in the early 1970s. The venture failed, in part because nobody in the company had the know-how to launch a successful franchise.
"I think it could work," says Poulos, of Horan's efforts. "But it will take a lot of work."
In 1997, almost a decade after Gus Poulos had passed away, a group of investors bought Papaya King and began hunting for an executive with the energy and expertise to expand in every direction. They hired Horan away from an upscale supermarket called Gourmet Garage.
"When I came to New York I was looking for a small growth company where I could get in on the ground floor," Horan says, between bites of a "home run," a dog with sauerkraut and onions. "A mom and pop that maybe didn't have children, looking to professionalize. I wasn't necessarily thinking food, though that was my primary target."
Horan is 38, tall, athletically built and Boy Scout earnest when it comes to his product. If you call him at work and reach his answering machine you'll hear, "I can't come to the phone right now because I'm out grilling the world's greatest franks and blending the greatest drinks."
Strictly speaking, this probably isn't true. Horan, who has an MBA from Yale, spends most of his time in a tie and jacket, hunting for good locations, rounding up financing and plotting how Papaya King can colonize. There are two stores today -- the other is in Harlem -- and a lease was signed last week to open a third downtown, near the West Village.
By June, Horan expects to open a store every month, and within five years he thinks the count will stand at about 500. Double that in 10 years.
"We're Mighty Mouse," Horan says, when asked about his pitch to potential investors. A small but powerful brand is what that means. "We have great bang for the buck. We have a very focused menu and it's inexpensive."
It's also wickedly good. Papaya King dogs are thin, have a slight hint of smoky garlic and they're browned enough to pop a little when you bite in. The buns are toasted, the onions grilled and fresh. In the most recent New York edition of Zagat's guide to restaurants a diner declared them "the best dogs in the free world."