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Manhattan institution Papaya King is losing its building. What is its future?


Papaya King is a Manhattan institution. It's been around for 90 years, and it's credited with pioneering the New York City combination of hot dogs and tropical juice. But their building faces demolition. Hot dog aficionados are flocking to Papaya King to snag what might be their last bite there. From member station WNYC in New York, Emily Lang reports.

EMILY LANG: On a corner block of the Upper East Side, Papaya King's gaudy, deep-yellow sign stands out from the chain stores around it. You can feel the heat off the grill the second you walk in. On the walls, there are quotes about the benefits of fruit. And it's standing room only. Customers line up at a narrow counter to order.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A little bit of mustard, only a little bit.

LANG: Some of the people in line are tourists who don't know that the future of Papaya King is up in the air. But others are longtime New Yorkers here to get their favorite hot dog while they still can like Richard Barnet, who's in his 80s. And he's been coming here since he was a little boy.

RICHARD BARNET: The fact that this was good 70 years ago when I was 11 and that it's good today says a great deal. It says that there's a certain kind of continuity and also that ordinary people can have good taste.

LANG: Papaya King was founded in 1932 by a Greek immigrant named Gus Poulos. His son Peter Poulos told the podcast "Grounded In Greek" back in 2021 that his father originally just wanted to sell tropical fruit juices but that in a neighborhood with lots of Germans, that didn't take right away.


PETER POULOS: People did not know what these juices were. So he had to spend a lot of time and money giving away these juices every day to the public - and literature, trying to educate them what papaya is, what this fruit was, that fruit was.

LANG: He played Hawaiian music and had women in grass skirts handing out papaya chunks to entice people. But when that didn't work, he threw in some frankfurters. Carole Kulok was one of those the store won over. She's in her 80s and said when she was younger, she would go without her parents knowing.

CAROLE KULOK: I came from a kosher home, and I wasn't allowed to eat this kind of thing. And I'd eat a hot dog in the telephone booth, which is - (laughter) was my sneaky, early childhood (laughter).

LANG: It's her favorite hot dog in the city, so she came to grab two. Hot dog historian Bruce Kraig says it's an odd combo - frothy, sweet tropical juice with an oily hot dog topped with sauerkraut and chest-clearing mustard. But it caught on. The combo was adopted by numerous copycats around the city - Gray's Papaya, Papaya Dog and Chelsea Papaya, among others.

BRUCE KRAIG: New York's the only place that does this. That's one of the historical importances of Papaya King.

LANG: But now the originators' run could be coming to an end. The lot where Papaya King sits was sold last year to Extell Development, a company known for building luxury apartments. Plans to demolish the building were filed at the end of June, but the date of demolition is unknown. Extell Development did not answer a request for comment; neither did Papaya King's current owner. It's unclear whether they'll continue to serve somewhere else. But even now, they're attracting new customers like 21-year-old Alejandra Perozo.

ALEJANDRA PEROZO: Definitely reminds me a little bit of home. I am from Puerto Rico, and there's a lot of, like, you know, like, fresh juice with, like, hotdogs and things that you can just, like, make easy in a cart. And it's just really nice. It's kind of - I don't know - comforting.

LANG: At least for now, New Yorkers can snag a sweet-and-sour treat though it might taste just a little bittersweet. For NPR News, I'm Emily Lang in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAO DONATO'S "AMAZONAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Lang