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Let's Do Launch

Another, by the way, advises that you "close your eyes" when you order.

A Variety of Wieners

Yes, there is something about hot dogs that says "avert your gaze." Particularly in the notoriously grisly manufacturing phase. For decades, all of Papaya King's dogs have come from a factory just a mile or so away. It's owned by Gus Poulos's godson, Gregory Papalexis, who is now 79 years old and still oversees day-to-day operations of the company he founded, Marathon Enterprises. A dozen or so brands are manufactured at the plant, which you reach by taking a subway to 138th Street and then walking a couple blocks east, under the Bruckner Expressway.


"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)

One October morning, Papalexis was sitting in his office, wearing a blue Greek fishing cap. His arms were crossed across his chest and he was leaning back in his chair, in the windowless room, under bright fluorescent lights. On a nearby desk a black Presto griddle was cooking a handful of wieners.

"Want one?" he said.

These particular dogs, he explained, are part of an experiment. They were made with a new additive that kills a long list of bacteria that are pretty common in hot dogs, though harmless to anyone with a decent immune system. The "inoculated dog," as Papalexis jokingly called it, is for people with AIDS or in the middle of chemotherapy. How exactly you market a hot dog as new, improved and bacteria-free is a mystery.

"We made these nine weeks ago," he said, gesturing to the griddle. "Every week we take a few out of the fridge and see how they taste. So far, they're great."

Otto von Bismarck is credited with that snappy quote about how sausage and laws are both things you don't want to see being made. But Papalexis was happy to offer a tour of the factory, which, it turns out, is a little messier than a typical legislature, but considered in a broader context, not nearly as gruesome.

The meat, at the outset, looks similar to what you'd find at any butcher's. Men in thick coats and sanitary gloves feed lumps of it into a chopper, where it is blended with spices and liquid smoke. After a few minutes of grinding, you end up with an emulsion that has the look of hummus, which is loaded into a meat buggy, then fed into a machine that cranks out paler versions of hot dogs. Those are then carted to a smokehouse, where they sit and absorb more flavor for about 90 minutes. About 400,000 hot dogs are produced here in a day.

"Right now, we use frozen meat for about 90 percent of our accounts," said Papalexis. "But for Papaya King, and for one other account, Sysco, the food distributor, we use all 100 percent fresh meat. All natural spices, too. And all our spices are sterile."

Papalexis doesn't think the meat alone can explain Papaya King's devoted following. Every year, there are hot dog taste tests in New York, and nearly every year the competitors that finish near the top all come from the same place -- this plant. For the employees here, it's a source of amusement.

"Each brand has its own taste profile," said Papalexis. "But you probably couldn't taste the difference. They're not miles apart."

Hot Dog Nation?

If you just look at the numbers, you'd assume there are hot dog chains scattered all over the country. About 20 billion were sold in the United States last year, according to the best estimates of a group called the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. This works out to about 57 million dogs per day. If you divide total consumption by the total population, every man, woman and child eats 68 hot dogs a year.

Of course, it's not that simple. Everyone in the food business has a theory about why every attempt at franchising these numbers into a fortune has failed. Some say dogs are a regional dish that doesn't lend itself to a national recipe. Peter Sealey, the professor from Berkeley, cites another, potentially more serious problem.

"The more difficult a food is to prepare, the better the franchise you've got," he said. "You can make a pizza at home, but it's an undertaking. You can make a burger at home, but not a Big Mac and very few people make fries. Fried chicken? It's difficult. The trouble with hot dogs is that you can make them at home and they taste just as good as what you buy in a restaurant. That's why it's never been a successful franchise."

Horan doesn't buy it.

"Look at Starbucks," he said. "They sell coffee. Anyone can make coffee at home, but Starbucks is one of the most successful companies of the last six years. Why do people buy beer in a bar?"

Anyway, about 40 percent of Papaya King sales are fruit juices, and the juices are far more profitable. ("Think water," says Horan. "You're selling water.") He needs customers to spend about $4 in his store, which means that if they come for the dogs and decide to buy a smoothie at Jamba Juice down the street, Papaya King is in trouble.

This might be the toughest part of this whole undertaking -- convincing the country that they really want a hot dog with their shakes. In New York, the sale was made decades ago.

A parade of patrons rushes in and out of the place on Monday evening. A cabbie pulls up and double-parks to grab a hot dog and a medium mango drink. One senior citizen seems to be buying dinner for her entire neighborhood. And Roger Hoffman, a former Navy man who grew up in this neighborhood in the '50s, is propped against the counter, introducing his grown-up son to the place where he stopped every day as a kid on the way to the train station.

"My mother told me it would clean the poison out of my system," he says. He has a plastic cup of papaya juice in one hand and a hot dog in the other.


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