By Lisa Lacy
They may say potato is king at Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, but it is starting to get some competition from nontraditional ingredients.
While the bakery is still firmly devoted to its original savory and sweet cheese knishes, special knishes periodically appear on the menu that reflect the neighborhood’s changing tastes and demographics. As the knishery moves closer to its centennial in 2010, it now caters to a number of distinct crowds: the traditional knish lover who grew up on them; tourists who don’t know what a knish is; and a newer, younger generation that may not necessarily have had knishes before or know they are supposed to be eaten with a dollop of mustard.
With these varied groups in mind, Yonah Schimmel now produces special knishes, including jalapeno and cheddar, salmon and pizza and even pumpkin-raisin in October and November.
“It tastes like pumpkin pie,” employee Dane Lepson said of the pumpkin-raisin knish.
“I invent lots of new ones,” Lepson said. “Do you know what the next knish is going to be?”
“Ice cream?” manager Alex Wolfman joked.
“Spinach and feta,” Lepson said.
This is a far cry from the knishes Yonah Schimmel himself made when he opened the store in 1910.
The rabbi from Romania began selling mashed potatoes wrapped in dough from a pushcart. He realized after immigrating to the U.S. that the Lower East Side was already home to many rabbis and that he’d have to find another means of supporting himself, Lepson said.
Fast-forward 97 years, and the sixth generation of the family is still running the business. It’s one of the longest-running businesses in the area, Lepson said.
“Yonah Schimmel, Russ & Daughters and Katz’s Deli are still here they represent what the Lower East Side was,” Lepson said.
Today’s Lower East Side is indeed a different place. New condos, hotels, restaurants and bars highlight its newfound reputation as a nightlife hotspot.
And yet Yonah Schimmel remains in the middle of it all, seemingly unchanged aside from periodic menu additions.
Fake purple flowers decorate the tables alongside metal containers holding cutlery. It seems almost a throwback to a bygone era and therefore it is a little surprising that a restaurant selling egg creams and soda could draw in a younger crowd more familiar with mojitos and cosmos.
And yet it does.
“Everybody likes knish,” Wolfman explained. And there simply aren’t that many places that sell knishes.
“Sandwiches, pizza, Chinese food you have that on each block,” he added. The restaurant is also known for its tasty potato pancakes, blintzes and matzo ball soup.
But Yonah Schimmel also sees more young people simply because there are more of them out and about thanks to the neighborhood’s new attractions. One such attraction is the Landmark Sunshine Cinema that opened literally next door to the knish mecca in 2001.
In fact, standing outside the theater and eating a potato knish with mustard last week was Rob Lummack, an intern for the United Nations from Ontario.
“This is actually my fifth day in New York,” Lummack said. He was just about to see “Into the Wild,” and explained that he stopped by Yonah Schimmel because he wanted to take advantage of the city and try new foods while he was here.
Lummack, 26, is certainly in good company.
A “Now Open Late” sign is displayed in the front window alongside numerous newspaper articles on the establishment some of which have begun to fade because they’ve been on display for so long.
But the knishery doesn’t really have set hours.
“We stay open until we get cranky,” Lepson joked.
In actuality, Yonah Schimmel closes around 7 p.m. during the week. However, sometimes it has been far later on the weekends.
“We don’t stay open as late as we should,” Lepson conceded.
The knishery used to stay open until 2:30 a.m., but Lepson said that was more of a pain than it was worth with the “drunk and crazy” twenty-somethings.
“It’s not the same neighborhood at 2:30,” he said.
Despite fluctuating schedules and specials, one thing that hasn’t changed is Yonah Schimmel’s knish recipe.
“It’s the same as it was 100 years ago,” Wolfman said.
Business varies depending on the season. Wolfman said they sell far more knishes in the winter because of the weather, holiday parties and gifts.
And despite a Web site that proudly declares you can send knishes anywhere in the world overnight and cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling to make that happen Wolfman said Yonah Schimmel’s main trade is still its in-store business.