Financier turned frankfurtier Nicholas Gray opened his hot-dog-and-papaya-juice stand on Broadway and West 72nd Street in 1973. Since then, Gray’s Papaya has grown into a three-location mini-chain famous for two things: cheap, tasty franks and the iconoclastic political messages spouted from banners in its front windows. (The current proclamation: YES, MR. PRESIDENT-ELECT OBAMA, WE ARE READY TO BELIEVE AGAIN.) Gray talked sauerkraut statecraft with Jesse Oxfeld.
Were the political banners there from the beginning?
The first was for Ramsey Clark, in 1974. He ran for the Senate against Jacob Javits. He was attorney general in the Johnson administration, and he’s now a famous lawyer. He defends the ayatollah, people like that. Controversial types. But he was a good man in those days, a card-carrying liberal.
And that was your eureka moment—that you could support his campaign by putting a sign in the window of your hot-dog store?
We have a lot of traffic, and I have some strong political convictions. I did it for Jimmy Carter. I did it for Clinton when he was being impeached. “Hang in there, Mr. President,” was all I put. No Republicans.
But you were a Giuliani supporter.
I liked his polite–New Yorker campaign. I don’t particularly like the man now. I’m a liberal, a card-carrying liberal. Like most of my constituents.
Actually, your signs have always seemed not that far left, by New York City standards.
They’re regular, you know, common-sense signs.
Which made Bloomberg a good fit for you—you had signs encouraging him to run for president.
Oh, completely. And he’s a very nice guy, by the way. He came by and got a hot dog.
Before or after you endorsed him? [Laughs]
After I put the sign in the window.
You currently have Obama signs up on the Upper West Side and in Greenwich Village, but you don’t—
I don’t have any room in midtown, it’s a pain in the neck!
But it’s not that the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village are more receptive? No, no, no, not at all.
When did the recession special—a cheap price for two hot dogs and drink—start?
Oh, years ago. Back in the eighties sometime. And it’s always been there since—I say my customers are always in a recession.
They are now, certainly. But the recession special just went up to $4.45 in October.
I do what I have to do.
You raised the price in the middle of an actual recession!
My payroll goes up, my rent goes up, my insurance. The cost of food is astronomical these days. I used to be famous for being cheap; now I’m only reasonable.
Will it be able to stay at $4.45 for a while?
God, I hope so. Every time it goes up it’s traumatic.
For you or for your customers?
For me and my customers.