"We might serve 2,500 customers in eighteen hours on a Friday."Photo: Melissa Hom
Alexander Poulus was working as an engineer five years after graduating from NYU, but when his uncle Gus, the founder of Papaya King, offered to bring him into the company, he couldn’t refuse. For 35 years, he has seen the Upper East Side location (which is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary) through stolen tip jars, windows shattered by brawling drunks, and of course the snappy service of countless hot dogs that are “Tastier Than Filet Mignon.”
What makes your dogs different from all the other Papaya stands?
Our frankfurters are made just for us [by Marathon Entreprises]. We use fresh domestic bull meat, natural casing, and our beef is less than 25 percent fat. We have our own spiced blend that’s heavy on the garlic.
How many people do you see on a busy day?
We might serve 2,500 customers in eighteen hours on a Friday, probably more than half of them between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sometimes we’ll have 25 to 30 people in each line.
Does it ever get ugly?
Frequently there are arguments about who was in line before. We try to diffuse the situation by saying, “We could’ve served three or four people in the time you were arguing.”
Do you ever seriously get in the weeds?
When we get moving, it’s easy, because the gas under the grill is on almost full blast. Once a year or every two years, on a June or July in Saturday, we stop serving franks for about five minutes because we can’t keep up.
Does it get exhausting?
I’m 59 so I do get tired. It gets very hot during the summer. It can get to 110 degrees behind the grill. Our hands have become asbestos; we get burned, but we don’t feel it.
What’s the story behind you and Nick Gray?
Nick was our first franchisee two years before I joined. After his five-year contract, he started calling it Gray’s Papaya. He had the formulas for the drinks.
What makes your drinks unique? Do your employees have to sign a non-disclosure form?
Yes, they do. There are only three people that are allowed to make papaya; they know the secret formula — papaya, some milk, honey, sugar, and lemon juice. We don’t use syrups or bases.
Have you pursued your imitators in court?
We’ve sued many a Papaya Kingdom, Papaya Prince.
Al Franken and Mario Batali are devotees of Gray’s. Which celebs have you served?
Woody Allen is a frequent customer. Tony Roberts. Eliot Spitzer and Mark Green. Charlie Rangel comes in here very frequently. Ex-President Clinton came here shortly after he moved into Harlem. It was about 9:15, so there was no one else in the store, just one other customer. He stayed for three or four minutes. Martha Stewart comes in; she loves our franks.
Your customers are rabidly devoted. Do any stand out?
A gentleman called me up; it was his 25th anniversary and he wanted to treat his wife. We got some candles and flowers and a vase and set up an area, and sure enough he bought a bottle of champagne and they had a nice dinner in our “corner table.” He was telling his wife, “I’m going to surprise you with a very fancy meal.” She said she appreciated the meal at Papaya King even more.