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The world has a taste for LI's Kozy Shack

Quality control employee Tejas Vakharia takes a taste

Quality control employee Tejas Vakharia takes a taste of a Kozy Shack product at the grading table as he and chief executive Robert Striano sample some of the company’s products. (June 16, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Karen Wiles Stabile

No matter how whimsical or far-fetched, no idea is considered "crazy" at the headquarters of Hicksville pudding maker Kozy Shack.

Chief executive and president Robert Striano said he has even fielded the suggestion from friend and YES Network commentator Al Leiter, who proposed the company put its products on a stick -- a more convenient way to consume the snack on the job.

"We're not allowed to look at stuff as [being] crazy," Striano said, "because it retards the creative process."

While Leiter's suggestion has yet to be taken up, the 44-year-old company has expanded its products and reach since its modest beginnings when founder Vincent Gruppuso started selling Kozy Shack's signature rice pudding along his bread delivery route.

Today the company has three manufacturing plants, including those in California and Ireland, and distributes its products to major supermarkets, four baseball stadiums and institutions like hospitals.

Despite its expansion, the company remains faithful to its founding concepts. Kozy Shack continues to use a kettle-based process as well as all natural and gluten-free ingredients in almost all of its products. The exceptions are the no-sugar-added products, which contain Splenda, and its bread pudding, which is not gluten-free.

"There are a lot of choices you can make, like adding preservatives to give it a longer shelf life to save a bit of money," Striano said. "But we don't."

From bread to pudding
Gruppuso, who died in 2008, discovered and became enamored with the rice pudding sold at a neighborhood deli in Brooklyn along his bread delivery route. He convinced the deli owners to let him sell it from his truck and eventually the pudding sales eclipsed the bread sales, Striano said. In 1967, Gruppuso bought the recipe and began producing it at a Queens factory. Kozy Shack's facilities relocated to Mineola in 1977 and then to Hicksville in 1994. Grupusso's three daughters now own the company.

"Today the proximity of the ingredients, like milk purchased from New York dairies, and access to major highways and thoroughfares make Long Island the perfect place for the company," Striano said.

Plants in Turlock, Calif., and Lough Egish, Ireland, have helped broaden the company's North American and international presence. Consumers are able to find Kozy Shack products in 96 percent of all food stores in the United States, Striano said. Its reach extends into Canada. Walmart is its biggest customer.

The busy workings of the Hicksville plant are touched with a mesmerizing allure akin to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory -- minus the Oompa Loompas. Giant metal kettles cook and churn these ingredients, their temperatures regularly recorded and their progress displayed on digital reader boards. Cooked chocolate, rice and tapioca puddings are pumped through pipes and into machines that squirt the creamy dessert into containers, seal them and send them off on a conveyor belt. All along the pudding's journey there are quality checkpoints.

"It's a little bit of a ballerina act to get the flow," said Rich Hubli, vice president of operations.

Consumer trends
The company's research and development, and marketing teams have tailored new desserts to consumer trends over the years. Noticing reports of high rates of diabetes, the company created a selection of no-sugar-added puddings.

Kozy Shack also branched out into the "kids" segment, adding the all-natural brands of CowRageous puddings and SmartGels gelatin snacks made with no animal by-products.

Nostalgia is yet another theme that has led to Kozy Shack's new line of bread puddings. Striano stresses that he is in no way advocating a couch potato lifestyle, but comfort food evocative of simpler times does have its place today, he said.

"It's old-school and nostalgic and another example of marketing where we looked at an economic trend," he said.

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