Nicholas Gray — the founder of Gray’s Papaya, one of New York City’s most beloved and eccentric restaurant chains — died in a Manhattan hospital last Friday.
He was 86.
His death was brought on by complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to The New York Times.
Gray opened his first restaurant peddling hot dogs and papaya drinks at remarkably reasonable prices in 1973, back when he was a Wall Street stockbroker still reeling from a recent divorce.
Born in Chile and educated in England and Canada, one day he was walking by Papaya King on 86th Street on the Upper East Side when he was struck by the jocular atmosphere and the evocative smells of the cooking dogs and sweet juice.
Soon after he quit his white collar job and organized a franchise deal with Papaya King to open his own restaurant under the same name.
When that contract expired two years later, he started his own restaurants under the Gray’s Papaya name.
Gray’s Papaya immediately made a splash on the scene by offering hot dogs for the staggeringly low price of 50 cents per dog — 25 cents cheaper than his former partner, Papaya King.
He was able to maintain that price until 1999, and over the years Gray’s Papaya became known for deals like the 1982 “Recession Special,” which asked just $1.95 for a pair of hot dogs and a juice.
Raising prices on his customers was the blight of Gray’s life.
In a 2008 interview with the Times he said doing so was “always very traumatic for me as well as for the customers,” and once posted a sign in his store window explain that “galloping inflation in food costs” had forced the restaurant to raise prices.
“Unlike politicians we cannot raise our debt ceiling and are forced to raise our very reasonable prices. Please don’t hate us,” he implored.
Affordability, eccentricity, and street corners, were the holy trinity of Gray’s business model.
Signs declaring “When you’re hungry, or broke, or just in a hurry!” or “Let us be frank, we want you to buy our furters. Heh! Heh!… Get it?” plastered the storefront, while in warmer weather Gray’s would leave the doors open to the sidewalk at all hours and customers would wander in and the smell of dogs and juice would flow out among the city.
Over the years Gray’s Papaya operated numerous locations across the city, and Gray himself was known to don a red uniform and take orders from New Yorkers behind his counters.
Today, only his original location at West 72nd Street and Broadway remains, but Gray’s family has vowed to keep the business alive after his death, according to Tasting Table.