Long-time Hell’s Kitchen resident Nicholas Gray, the trailblazing founder of Gray’s Papaya who popularized the pairing of hot dogs and papaya juice for New Yorkers, has died. The Gray family shared the news this afternoon of his death last Friday at 86 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Gray's Papaya
Gray’s Papaya location on the UWS. Photo: Phil O’Brien

“It is with heavy hearts and great sadness that we announce the passing of a New York icon and our fearless founder Nicholas A B Gray. An immigrant who opened Gray’s Papaya in 1973 and the sweetest, funniest, most eccentric boss, father, husband, brother, husband, uncle, grandfather and friend,” read the message from his daughter, Tessa Gray, on Instagram. “Thank you for the countless lives you brightened, one Recession Special at a time.”

The Gray family, including his wife Rachael and 18-year-old twins Rufus and Tessa, currently operate the business after Nicholas’s retirement five years ago. The family has lived on W36th Street in Hell’s Kitchen for over 30 years.

Nicholas and Rachael Gray
Nicholas Gray with his wife, Rachael, at Gray’s Papaya. Photo via Instagram

NYC Mayor Eric Adams paid tribute to Gray’s Papaya as “a New York City institution and a beacon for Polite New Yorkers”

Throughout its history, Gray’s Papaya had several locations. Currently, the chain operates solely from its flagship store on the Upper West Side.

Nicholas, a former partner of the renowned Papaya King, established his own stand in 1973 after exiting a Wall Street stockbroker career. Gray’s Papaya, since its inception, has consistently ranked among the top hot dogs in the city.

Gray’s Papaya, famous for its signature drink and its affordability, once sold hot dogs for 50 cents, but the price has risen to $2.95, as noted in a WSJ article in February 2023.

Gray, a Chilean-born thrill-seeker who funded his college education through his work at Arctic radar stations, ventured to open a Papaya King franchise at Broadway and 72nd St in 1973. Two years later, free from the franchise contract, he rebranded the coveted location as Gray’s Papaya, reducing the price of a hot dog from 75 cents to 50 cents. The price slash was announced on a striking white sign pronouncing “Hot Dog Revolution!” in bold red letters.

The statement made by Mr. Gray effectively “went viral,” in today’s terms. “In a week’s time, we saw our daily hot dog sales surge from 500 to over 3,000,” said his wife, Rachael in an interview with the WSJ. In the face of the faltering economy in 1982, Mr. Gray introduced his signature Recession Special: two hot dogs and a tropical drink for $1.95. The small, round-the-clock eatery without tables became the go-to spot for a quick meal for busy professionals, late-night party-goers, and anyone craving an affordable, tasty treat.

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in You've Got Mail at Gray's Papaya
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan at Gray’s Papaya in You’ve Got Mail. Photo: IMDB

The eatery was frequented by a star-studded clientele that included John Lennon, Ai Weiwei and Samuel L Jackson. Its popularity also caught the attention of location scouts, earning it a place in films and TV shows set in Manhattan — including You’ve Got Mail, The Back-Up Plan and For Love or Money. The sign over the door reads: “When You’re Hungry, or Broke, or Just in a Hurry! No Gimmicks! No Bull!” — welcoming all New Yorkers.

In a phone interview with the New York Times, Nicholas’s wife, Rachael, said: “Long live Gray’s Papaya!” The legend continues…

Gray's Papaya
Gray’s Papaya at W72nd and Broadway. Photo: Phil O’Brien

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  1. I posted a picture of myself eating a Papaya King’s Hot dog. A friend commented that it brought back memories of her deceased father. he loved The Hotdogs and Papaya juice and would always have a papaya juice mustache after drinking one. Going to PK was a special treat for daddy & daughter.

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