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."
"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, pina 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?"
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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.