It’s a sad day for hot dog lovers as Gray’s Papaya, known worldwide for its “recession special,” announced the passing of its founder, Nicholas Gray.
“It is with heavy hearts and great sadness that we announce the passing of a New York icon and our founder, Nicholas Gray,” the famous hot doggery shared on its Instagram page. “An immigrant who opened Gray’s in 1973 and the sweetest, funniest, most eccentric boss, father, husband, and brother. Thank you for the countless lives you brightened one recession special at a time.”
Gray was born in 1937 in Valparaiso, Chile, the son of a banker. He attended high school in England, went to college in Montreal, fell in love with a girl, and moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They had two daughters but divorced in the early ’70s … during which time a despondent Nicholas passed by a Papaya King location at 86th Street and Third Avenue and saw his future.
The New York Times reported that Gray was 86 years old and the cause of death, as revealed by his daughter Natasha, was “complications from Alzheimer’s disease.” Store management told us that a date for a memorial has not yet been set.
The self-proclaimed purveyor of the “best hot dog anywhere” was originally a Papaya King franchise which Gray decided to take independent after two years. It quickly became a neighborhood institution because of its fast service, great food and low prices, serving people who needed a quick bite of a hot dog with a snap and a tasty drink.
The bright and cheery storefront has from its inception featured light-hearted messages; Gray originally opened the store with a hand-made sign that said “Hot Dog Revolution.” The store still has the character of old New York with bright lights, lightning fast service, and a small counter where you can eat standing up, because there isn’t any room for seats.
There were other locations in Greenwich Village and in Midtown, but they’ve since closed due to rising rents.
Gray’s famous “recession special” – two hot dogs and your choice of a juice – started in 1982 at the cost of $1.95. All these years later and it’s still only $6.95, and the breakfast sandwich prices are extremely low as well. Where else in 2023 can you get a bacon egg and cheese with a coffee for three dollars?
Gray’s second wife, Rachel, began to take over the business when he became too ill to continue, and their 18-year-old children, Tessa and Rufus, sometimes work the counter.
We were unable to reach Ms. Gray for comment, but she told the Times she plans to renew their lease when it runs out, adding, “Long live Gray’s Papaya.” It sounds like this New York City institution is staying where it belongs.