Widely Admired Founder Of UWS Hot Dog Stand Gray’s Papaya Is Dead At 86

Nicholas Gray’s stand, named for the fruit drink that pairs nicely with its wieners, has been a staple on the UWS since its owner started a breakaway franchise from the legendary Papaya King. Gray was an admired pinnacle of his community that remained vigorously outspoken to the bitter end.

| 29 May 2023 | 08:47

Nicholas Gray, a famed proselytizer of pairing chilled tropical fruit juice with a fine old American staple–hot dogs–has passed away at the age of 86. His franchise chain, Gray’s Papaya, maintains a flagship location at 2090 Broadway that stands strong to this day.

Gray was about as much of a celebrity as one could expect a comfort food slinger to be, attracting infamy and adulation in equal measure. He fiercely stood behind Bill Clinton during his Monica Lewinsky impeachment scandal, throwing a “Hang In There Mr. President” sign in front of his flagship store. He also endorsed Barack Obama in 2008. Yet if locals might not be expected to countenance such prickly posturing from around-the-way entrepreneurs, its brazenness only garnered him further respect.

This extended to his ebullient and off-beat marketing tactics. His opening salvo was a sign that proclaimed he was starting a “Hot Dog Revolution”, and Gray’s Papaya went on to feature signage ranging from “No Gimmicks! No Bull!” to a helpful clarification that papayas are the “aristocratic melon of the tropics.”

Gray did not pioneer the pairing of papaya juice and hot dogs, but instead ran with the odd combo in a savvier way than his predecessors. He cut his teeth at Papaya King, a joint on the UES that closed last summer. The fruit-juice & wiener combo initially gained steam in the 1930s, and has been shopped around in at least eight different locations throughout the borough. Gray first had a taste on a depressive post-divorce stroll through Wall St. in the 1970s, with the sweet tang of the papaya reminding him of Chile (he was born in Valparaiso in 1937). It forever changed his trajectory, and his ambitions.

Gray’s Papaya is a chain, with two locations in Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village closing due to do skyrocketing rents in 2011 and 2014, respectively. Its aforementioned flagship store on the UWS still attracts dedicated customers. It briefly opened a location between W. 39th St. and W. 40th St. in 2016, only to have the COVID-19 pandemic shutter it in 2020. It is famous for its astounding cheapness (historically as low as fifty cents for a dog and now just under three dollars). It has been featured–obliquely or otherwise–in multiple films, including: Die Hard With A Vengeance, Fools Rush In, and The Back-Up Plan featuring Jennifer Lopez.

The son of a British bank manager working in Chile, Nicholas Gray was an alum of McGill University in Montreal and a former Wall St. stockbroker. He is survived by his wife Rachel, a daughter Sheila from his first marriage, another daughter and a son–Tessa and Rufus–from his second marriage, a sister, and a granddaughter.