The original Papaya King was opened in 1932 on the corner of 86th St. and Third Ave. on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Although the restaurant originally only served drinks made from fresh tropical fruits, it soon expanded to serving hot dogs due to the influence of its neighborhood, which at the time was populated predominantly by German-American immigrants. It now also serves crispy curly fries, onion rings, fried pickles, fried Oreos, fried Twinkies, tater tots, knishes, cheese steaks and corn dogs.
Papaya King was founded and run for many years by the late Gus Poulos, and later by his son Peter, who first managed their second store (with seating) at 87th Street and Third Avenue. In the 1930s, there was also a store in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. During the 1970s, the Pouloses attempted to franchise the restaurant, and one franchise briefly opened in midtown. A company-owned store opened (and closed) in the 1980s at 59th Street and Third Avenue. In 2001, another company-owned store opened in Philadelphia, this time on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania at 40th and Locust Streets; it closed in 2004. In 2006, another attempted franchise opened briefly in the food court at Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island, in Garden City, New York. The Poulos family sold the business in the early 2000s.
In May, 2013 Papaya King opened a concept store on St. Marks Place – a historical and cultural crossroads in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. The store features a recessed patio area in front, widely referred to as “the stoop,” where customers and locals gather. The store features many of the classic elements that characterize the 86th Street location, with additional experience elements such as vintage arcade games, a projector screen, sound system and brand merchandise.
During the summer of 2014, Papaya King opened its first food truck that is parked throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.
In May, 2016 Papaya King expanded to Brooklyn and opened their third restaurant on the corner of Nevins Street and Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn. This location mirrors the look of the original location, on the Upper East Side.
In 2017, Papaya King started franchising, and immediately, two locations in Las Vegas opened. The Las Vegas locations are a lot larger then the counter-service only restaurants in New York, and have a full liquor license and waiter service.
Over the years, the chain has had numerous competitors, including Gray's Papaya and Papaya Dog, open around the city. In 1976, Nathan's Famous set up shop next door to Papaya King, and a "hot dog war" ensued. Nathan's cut the price of its hot dogs to 35 cents (normal was 50 cents), while Papaya King sold its hotdogs for a quarter. Six months later, Nathan's capitulated and left the block.
In popular culture
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- In the Seinfeld episode "The Movie", Kramer leaves the movie ticket line, where he was saving spots for Jerry, Elaine, and George, to get a hot dog from Papaya King.
- In the How I Met Your Mother episode "I Heart NJ," Ted cites Papaya King as one of the great things about New York (having patronized Gray's Papaya earlier in the series). Later in the episode, Stella incorrectly says that she was in front of Papaya King on 86th and Lex (not 3rd).
- In the 1988 film Crossing Delancey, Izzy goes to Papaya King for her birthday dinner.
- In the 1997 Hugo Award-nominated novella Loose Ends by Paul Levinson, time traveler Jeff Harris buys two papaya drinks from Papaya King, and says the drink is "delicious."
- Jonathan Lethem's novels Motherless Brooklyn and Chronic City both mention hot dogs from "Papaya Czar" ; in the latter novel, this is in the actual location of a Papaya King on 86th Street and 3rd Avenue.
- "About - Papaya King". papayaking.com. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
- Kleiman, Dena (August 21, 1991). "New York Puts Its Papaya Where Its Hot Dogs Are". The New York Times. Retrieved April 30, 2011.
- "Campus Buzz". upenn.edu. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
- "The Approval Matrix - Week of June 3, 2013 -- New York Magazine". NYMag.com. Retrieved 19 May 2015.
- "Crossing Delancey: Songs for Izzy's Birthday (HD)". YouTube. December 18, 2008. Retrieved April 30, 2011.