Gabila's Knishes: From humble beginnings to national reach

Stacey Ziskin Gabay, center, executive vice president and Stacey Ziskin Gabay, center, executive vice president and general counsel of Gabila's Knish Co., is surrounded by some of the knish makers who produce the unique food item at the company's Copiague factory. (Jan. 13, 2014) Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The fried knish dreams of a hungry nation hinge on the arrival of a one-of-a-kind machine at Gabila's Knishes in Copiague.

Water damage from a fire Sept. 24 halted production of the square, fried dumplings, stuffed with potatoes, spinach and other fillings, at Gabila's squat, 10,000-square-foot factory. Fans were in a fix.

The reason: Gabila's, a 93-year-old family-owned company, has a lock on the nation's fried knish business, supplying carts, food trucks, supermarkets and warehouse clubs.

Round, baked knishes — from Gabilla's and other providers — are still available. But Jay Parker, owner of Ben's Best Kosher Delicatessen in Queens, said that, to many, Gabila's fried squares are synonymous with knishes. "When you say, 'knish,' that's the only thing they think of."

News of the fire and resulting knish shortage unleashed a nationwide media blitz of puns and alliterations. Headline writers howled about "fire and oys." Cecily Strong of "Saturday Night Live" deadpanned, "Officials suspect knarson."

But for Gabila's, the outage is no laughing matter. The roughly 13 million fried square knishes it produces every year account for about three-quarters of the company's revenue, said Stacey Ziskin Gabay, executive vice president, general counsel and the company's representative since the fire.

Though the company, formally known as Gabila Food Products Inc., is insured for business interruption, "that was a very hard hit," Ziskin Gabay said. All production — including that of secondary products like blintzes and potato pancakes — was halted for a week and a half during which several factory workers were laid off, she said.

As of Friday, 115 days since the fire, Gabila's was still awaiting the replacement knish machine. Delivery is expected this week, Ziskin Gabay said.

Despite the product's broad distribution, Gabila's is a small company; Dun & Bradstreet put annual sales at $7 million as of June 1, 2013. (Privately owned Gabila's doesn't disclose financial data.)

But the 48-person company shares a genealogy with some of the Island's largest companies, including Henry Schein Inc. of Melville and CA Technologies of Islandia: It was born in New York City and eventually moved to Long Island — in 2006, in the case of Gabila's. At a time when Long Island has difficulty attracting companies from out of state, its suburban setting is still a draw for companies looking to leave the Big Apple.

Gabila's beginnings

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Gabila's may be a fried knish powerhouse now with a total of more than 1 billion sold, but its origins were modest.

In the early 20th century, lower Manhattan was teeming with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia, providing a ready market for the potato-filled dumplings.

In 1921, Elia and Bella Gabay, immigrants from an area in southeast Europe that was to become Yugoslavia, made their first batch of knishes for sale. Bella fried them in their Lower East Side kitchen, and Elia sold the squares from a pushcart.

But competition was fierce among the makers of knishes, a treat whose culinary origins are unknown.

In the beginning, according to family lore, the Gabays were so uncertain the business would succeed that they refused to link their name to the brand. Instead they picked a name from the phone book — Gabila — close, but not identical, to their own, said Ziskin Gabay.

The Gabays, however, found a competitive advantage. While many other competitors baked round knishes, the Gabays created a version both square and fried.

Fried knishes were a hit, and in 1928 the Gabays moved operations to a factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and began mass production.

Elia and Bella's son Artie Gabay took over the business with several siblings in the 1940s, the same decade Gabila's launched a line of round, baked knishes.

Artie Gabay and his siblings ran the business into the mid-1980s when Artie's son, Elliott Gabay, and several cousins took over.

In 1999, Gabila's got a foothold in the warehouse clubs of Costco Wholesale Corp., which became the company's biggest single customer, accounting for about 10 percent of sales, said Ziskin Gabay.

Nine years ago, Elliott Gabay bought out his cousins' interest in Gabila's, gaining total control, and a year later, in 2006, moved operations from Brooklyn to Copiague.

Why uproot the company?

Ziskin Gabay said Gabila's was simply following Elliott Gabay and others in the clan who had moved to Long Island.

In 2008, Gabila's won a spot on the aisles of BJ's Wholesale Club, now its second-largest customer, accounting for about 5 percent of sales. In 2009, a food broker helped Gabila's expand its distribution to more Costco outlets.

A new generation is now helping to shepherd the company in the 21st century.

Elliott Gabay remains president and chief financial officer, but his son, Andrew, is now chief executive, and his daughter, Lori Gabay Jioia, is vice president.

Ziskin Gabay said her husband, Andrew, a former administrative law judge at the New York State Department of Labor, had long dreamed of joining the family business.

"When he was a child, he used to come to visit his grandfather Artie in the factory," she said. "In his mind, that's what he wanted to do."

At the nondescript Copiague plant on Wartburg Avenue, whose lobby is lined with pictures of Elia, Bella and Artie, Ziskin Gabay said that she was drawn into the business after practicing management-side labor and employment law for 13 years.

"I wanted to run a business instead of just practicing law," she said. "It was a family business. It all just tied together."

Knishes' nationwide appeal

Though the metropolitan area remains a sales stronghold and Gabila's products are kosher, Ziskin Gabay said the appeal of the traditional Jewish food extends beyond ethnic bounds, making them as American as burritos or kung pao chicken.

"We have people of all backgrounds who love our product," she said.

Until the knish outage, The Hot Dawg Truck, a food truck parked at 700 Dibblee Dr. in Garden City, offered a dozen custom-made "knishwiches" -- Gabila's knishes stuffed with a spicy sausage "dawg" and cheese, for instance, or with sour cream, Cheddar cheese and bacon.

Gary Nathanson of Hicksville, who works on The Hot Dawg Truck, said he doesn't use baked, round knishes "because people can't stuff them like we stuff the square ones," Nathanson said.

"Fried is always better," said Parker of Ben's Best deli, which was serving Gabila's fried squares stuffed with pastrami or corned beef.

Not everyone agrees on the supremacy of fried squares.

In a telephone interview, Ellen Anistratov, co-owner of Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery, a Manhattan landmark, called her round, baked version "the granddaddy of all knishes."

Anistratov called the squares made by Gabila's mere impostors: "The fried and square knish is not really a knish . . . You can't compare gourmet food to fried food."

Ziskin Gabay scoffed at the round-knish chauvinism and insisted that die-hard knish lovers go for the square.

"Ellen will say that because that's the kind of knish Yonah Schimmel's makes," she said. "Knishes are traditionally square and fried . . . They . . . are the real knishes."

Those knishes, however, are nowhere to be found following the September fire, traced to a faulty exhaust fan. The outage has shaken Gabila's to its potato and spice core.

Since the shortage, Elliott Gabay, the president, said he has been fielding overheated calls from passionate knish lovers.

"It's not blood plasma. It's knishes," he said. "People are talking like they're going to die."

Hopes rest on the arrival of a new 18-foot knish machine where the dough and potato concoctions are formed, cut and readied for frying. Once testing is complete, production can resume, filling the gaping fried-knish void.

"We have our fingers crossed," Ziskin Gabay said.

You also may be interested in: