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Gabila's Knishes in Copiague marks 100 years of potato-stuffed pastries

A photograph of a Gabila's Knishes delivery truck

A photograph of a Gabila's Knishes delivery truck from the 1940s is displayed at the company's factory in Copiague. Credit: Linda Rosier

From the outside, Gabila’s Knishes in Copiague looks like your average low-slung, midcentury brick factory building. But walk through the front door and you find yourself in the warm embrace of a photo gallery documenting the 100-year-old history of this singular company, the world’s largest producer of knishes.

There's a faded photo of founder Elia Gabay, looking dapper beside what appears to be a 1926 Pontiac Six Coupe that bears the stenciled letters, GABILA’S KNISHES SALESMAN. Another photo, of a slightly later vintage, shows seven young men with their arms around one another, in front of a delivery van that urges: "Ask Gabila’s for Knishes."

"That must have been in the early '40s, before the war," said Elliott Gabay, Elia’s grandson and the current owner of Gabila’s. "The fellow on the left, that’s my father, Artie."

Among the largest photos is a famous one, Weegee’s "Coney Island, 1945," that pictures hundreds, maybe thousands of bathers standing so close together that you can’t see the sand. Coney Island is where Gabila’s first began to pull away from the knish pack.

The streets of New York’s Lower East Side teemed with knish peddlers in the late 1800s. (For the un-knish-iated: a knish is a stuffed, savory pastry that was brought to the United States by the Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe.) The original model was a plump, round packet whose filling, either potato or kasha (buckwheat), could be glimpsed through an opening in the top for easy identification. The flaky, thin-skinned product was made by hand and needed to be handled with care. Gabila’s made this type of knish — and still does — but, around 1930, Elia introduced a variation that was square and thicker skinned, the crust completely sealed around the filling.

These new knishes were sturdy enough to be piled into shopping bags for the young men who were dispatched to schlep up and down the beach selling them. That’s the origin of the company’s motto: "The original Coney Island square knish."

GROWING UP IN THE KNISH TRADE

Elliott never had to hawk knishes on the beach. When he turned 12, though, he lost his playtime. His father, Artie, then running the company with his three siblings, informed him he’d be spending weekends at the factory packing knishes. At 14, Artie told him, "You’re getting a driver’s license and going on the truck."

Back in the day, Elliott recalled, "there were no boxes — there would be 45 knishes on a stainless-steel pan and the truck would have custom racks in the back. I’d pick up the pans in the morning hot from the cookroom and stack them in the truck. I’d drive with both doors open but the heat from the knishes would still fog up the windows."

In the 1950s and 1960s, Gabila’s customers were pushcart street vendors, ballparks, mom-and-pop grocers and, especially, kosher delis. The company still sells to pushcarts and ballparks but, Elliott said, "it’s much more competitive — there are so many more products than knishes, hot dogs, pretzels and peanuts." Independent grocers have been replaced by supermarket chains and as for the delis, "there used to be one on every block. Now I don’t know if there are even 50 in the tristate area."

Yet Gabila’s Knishes has not only endured, it has flourished, producing 3.5 million square knishes a year, 350,000 round knishes and scores of variations — jumbo knishes, cocktail knishes — plus, potato pancakes, zucchini pancakes, potato kugel, noodle kugel, blintzes and more. Its biggest customer is Costco, followed by BJ’s and Stop & Shop, ShopRite and other supermarkets. Most of the products can also be ordered directly from the website; they’ll be packed with dry ice and be dispatched anywhere in the U.S.

AN ASSEMBLY LINE OF KNISHES

Back in the Copiague vestibule, there's a life-sized brass head of Abraham Lincoln hanging above the door to the factory floor. It’s a souvenir from the first factory, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where Elia moved his fledgling operation in the late 1920s. And it moved, with the company, to Copiague in 2006.

The Gabays had been living on Eldridge Street in Manhattan when, in 1921, Elia started selling the knishes his wife Bella made in their kitchen. Elliott said that his grandfather did not want to market the knishes under a name that "sounded too Jewish," "so he picked ‘Gabila’ out of the phone book. "It was the name of a perfume company and he thought it sounded like ‘Gabay' but more elegant.’"

Around the time the company moved to Brooklyn, Elia made his Great Leap Forward: he figured out how to automate the production of knishes. He and his son, Isaac, who had been a machinist in the army, invented a machine that would encase the potato filling in dough and form the knishes. The machinery, however, necessitated two modifications that would change the course of knish history: the knishes would be square and they would be fried.

Gabila’s current knish-making machine is about 75 years old and looks it. There’s a full-time mechanic on staff but, if the machine goes, he’ll have his work cut out for him because the company that made it went out of business 30 years ago. In fact Gabila’s whole production line looks more "Modern Times" than modern technology. "Give me gears and bearings, give me sprockets — stuff you can see," Elliott declared. "I like the old way of doing business. I like working with people. Call me crazy."

Just inside Gabila’s loading dock are piles and piles of flour and more potatoes than I’ve ever seen in one place. Every week brings a delivery of two dozen Smart car-sized woven polypropylene bags, each one containing 1,500 pounds of russets. The flour is churned into dough; the potatoes are mechanically peeled, boiled, seasoned and mashed before being joined in holy matrimony with the dough in the knish machine.

The newly formed knishes plop into a fryer then make their way onto a conveyor belt that leads them into the refrigeration room to cool down. They slowly ascend and then descend a towering 15-tier spiral coil — like a very tight parking garage — and at the end of their two-hour sojourn at 35 degrees, they are cool enough to be packed.

Still on the conveyor belt, the knishes emerge from the cooler at a rate of 160 pieces a minute and a half dozen workers catch and pack them. At the front of the line is Zunilda Torres, who takes three of them in each hand, and gently stuffs them into a six-count plastic clamshell; she can assemble two packages every six seconds.

The knishes’ destination determines their packages. The clamshells are sold, refrigerated, in local supermarkets. When that quota is filled, the packers may switch to trays that hold four knishes, or boxes that hold 30.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Elliott, who bought out his cousins in 2005, was the Gabay who brought Gabila’s into the brave new world of mass distribution. He understood that the future of the company could no longer rely on the New York market and so he attended a monthlong program given by Rutgers University to learn about making products shelf stable.

He also made the decision to move the company to Copiague in 2006. At 30,000 square feet, the new location was only marginally larger than the one in Williamsburg, but that space had been cobbled together, piecemeal, over the decades as Gabila’s slowly gobbled up more and more buildings on the block. "It was a maze," Elliott said, "this place feels so much bigger."

In 2013, Gabila’s made national headlines in the worst way possible: A fire shut down square-knish operations for five months. Elliott was amazed that the story became a national sensation, but dismayed at the tone of much of the reporting. "Start kvetching the news," read the Daily News headline," There's a knish shortage!" Time Magazine chimed in with "Oy Vey! Factory Fire Leaves Many Without a Knish to Nosh."

Since then it’s been relatively smooth sailing. Working alongside Elliott are his son, Andrew, and his wife, Stacey Gabay, his daughter Lori and her husband, Rob Jioia. And there are a few members of the fifth generation — they would be Elia’s great, great grandchildren — who appear to have mashed potatoes running through their veins.

As for Elliott, at 74 he has no plans to retire. "I’m planning to just sit here in my office and one day when you knock on the door I just won’t answer."

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