Building Business: The Knack
Fresh Take on A Classic
Merriam Webster defines “knack” as a special ready capacity that is hard to analyze or teach, a clever way of doing something. The Knack in Orleans, and now Hyannis, epitomizes the concept.
Cape Cod’s restaurant roots run deep in the sandy landscape of our collective memories where the best summer days are crowned with dinner at a roadside clam shack. No need to brush the sand from our ankles here. Sun-soaked, salty and happy, we’ve rolled straight from our favorite beaches, stopping only, perhaps, for a rinse in the pond, up to the windows of our favorite food joints. With bountiful offerings across the peninsula, generations of families have grown up knowing just where to find their best-loved food fare. Some of these places have been here for decades, and others exist only in our pasts.
These days, one of the newest shacks on our shores are Knacks, in Orleans and Hyannis, classic takeout restaurants quickly becoming as iconic as any of their storied predecessors. With all the right offerings—classics like burgers, hot dogs, clam and lobster rolls, ice cream sandwiches and creamy shakes—the Knack serves up the old standards in new, fresh ways, making the ordinary just a little different somehow. “We wanted to do our best, and wanted everything scratch-made,” says Michael Haidas, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother Van. “We focused on making quintessential Cape Cod food that could survive in New York City where the restaurant competition is fierce.” The brothers agree they went into creating their menu with an intense focus on making their food measure up against any of the best. “We knew not to try to make a 40-item menu,” Van says. “We came up with 15 or so items and created them in a very deliberate, concise way. We wanted to really elevate the everyday.”
Michael nods, adding, “Our goal was to have people say ‘that’s one of the best fill-in-the-blanks I’ve ever had.’”
Just how did the brothers come to measure Cape Cod quintessential-classics against New York palates? The pair grew up at the elbows of grandparents who owned and operated the original Kream and Kone in Dennis; and worked through their teens for parents who started and owned the Cooke’s restaurant chain. Eventually, each left the Cape to go to college and pursue careers in New York City; ultimately both chose to come home to follow family tradition.
Michael started out in Chicago as a lawyer, eventually moving to New York where he worked as a litigation associate and a public defender in the Bronx. Van went to college in Maine, traveled for a year, then what was supposed to be a short-term internship on Wall Street turned into 10 years on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
“While we were in New York, we didn’t work in the restaurant business, but we ate out a lot,” Mike laughs. A constant thing the brothers noticed was that even some of the smallest, nondescript, hole-in-the-wall joints offered incredible foods. The simplest—because of the quality of the ingredients—were the best. “We decided to bring it home.” Van, who first considered moving back to the Cape to raise his family and start a restaurant, asked his brother if he might join him. “I said, ‘Alright, I’m in,’” Michael remembers. They began brainstorming several different concepts, eventually refining what has now evolved into the Knack. They opened their first establishment in 2014 in Orleans in a former Dairy Queen roadside stand.
While some might guess the restaurant name came from the band, The Knack, which gave us songs like My Sharona, the brothers laugh, saying actually it came from the pages of a dictionary. “We were going through the dictionary and found the word knack. We thought, that could work. It wasn’t until after that we found out about the band,” Mike says. Once they established there was no copyright on the word as it pertained to food, it was on to developing what has become a very successful and recognizable brand. Credit for that goes to the interior design company Weena and Spook, owned and operated in Boston by a couple who grew up on Cape Cod. “We couldn’t have articulated our vision as clearly as they did. It was awesome.”
While the Knack in Orleans quickly became a favorite for locals and visitors alike, the decision to open a second location in Hyannis didn’t come easily. In 2015, the current owners of Cooke’s in Hyannis, who were once managers for the Haidas families, decided to sell the business and offered it to Michael and Van. The brothers took over.
“We had been looking for a second location and thinking for a while about the idea of expanding. But we didn’t want to expand super fast and shoot ourselves in the foot,” says Van. “Orleans was eight years old, and we had been looking at different areas of the Cape for another Knack. We had a good record and had grown ourselves, and our staff, so we knew we had the stability.” The search took them from Provincetown to Falmouth, then COVID struck, an ambivalently sad and serendipitous event. “It was so hard for us to acknowledge, but it became clear that the Cooke’s business model in Hyannis wasn’t right. It’s a hard thing to even say, because of our love for the legacy of the place. So we started talking about that store as a potential for the new Knack. It’s a busy area central to the Cape.” The discussion was intensified and boiled down to whether they wanted to sell a piece of family history. “Then we decided we could actually transform history. With that kind of thinking we agreed it was time to do it.” They opened their second Knack just over a year ago.
Architect Chris Brown of b Architecture Studio, Inc. in Osterville, who worked on the redesign of the Hyannis restaurant, explains how the striking remodel that captured all the right “Knackiness” started with Michael and Van. “They were phenomenal clients. So easy to work with; to have a back and forth with. They came so prepared with their vision because Orleans was up and running. What they came to us with was so full and complete.” One of the trademarks of the Knack’s look is its simplicity. While older traditional Cape clam shacks have a certain cluttered charm, buoys and fishnet decor, the Knack’s lines are clean and simple. The inspired beachiness is sea and sky—lines as simple as the horizon. Weathered gray inspires the palette. Like the solid foundation of the family’s history here, the bones of the Hyannis building were there, Brown says.
Van and Michael remember they wanted to bring Orleans’ vibe to Hyannis. “Orleans is a unique spot. It’s a roadside stand. It’s got a window. We wanted to convey that when you walked through the doors in Hyannis. We wanted to transport you. We wanted you to feel as though you’re outside, even when you’re inside. That was a big focus,” Van notes. Michael adds with a smile, “Orleans is great when the weather is nice. Not so much in the winter.” To that end, the Hyannis restaurant brings the elements of the outside in, with Adirondack chairs around a fireplace. The menu is the same, the fonts are the same, the fact you order at a window, where you can peek into the kitchen is the same.
“At the heart of what we’re doing, we’re storytellers through the design and they have a great story to tell,” Brown says. “Their growing up in the industry, their preparedness, a site that was already so successful. That was how we created something so custom. It’s got such a great feel to the building. It feels simple, but simple is deceptive. Simple is hard.”
Construction began as COVID began. Cape Associates, Inc., who’d helped with some work at the Orleans site, did the project. The brothers said with COVID-related problems, including supply and shipping issues, the company had “every reason to come in late and over budget. But they didn’t. We couldn’t be more pleased. They were awesome.”
Cape Associates, Inc. executive vice president, Richard Bryant, like Brown, says much of the smooth sailing was due to the Haidas brothers’ clear vision and solid base. “Everything really came together so well. The fact that they have such a great sense of what they’re doing, what they’re all about, it all came together really fast.”
The basement of the large Hyannis restaurant has given the restaurants a prep kitchen, space that was missing in Orleans. The additional restaurant also gives them the stability to make sure they have year-round employment for the restaurant’s staff, a commitment for the brothers who say growing up here helped them understand the inherent challenges of living in a seasonal economy. They say they take providing jobs for locals seriously, and their decision to create a viable year-round business is proof of that.
Personal experience and an understanding of life on this sandy spit fuels the brothers to curate nothing but the best for the restaurant: Butcher extraordinaire Rick Backus at Nauset Farms in Orleans trained the brothers to cut and grind meat for the burgers, a blend he helped them to create, along with fellow butcher Mike Connors at Peterson’s in Yarmouth. Their meat is ground daily and hand-formed into patties. Seafood comes from Cape Fish and Lobster, the pickles that top the fish, chicken sandwiches and burgers are homemade, the batter is their grandparents’ recipe from Kreme and Kone. Produce is from Fancy’s and Guaranteed Fresh in Hyannis. The strawberry syrup for shakes is homemade; as is the peanut butter, hand ground for the peanut butter shakes. In other words, every detail has been considered, researched and sourced for the best possible option.
“Our prep list is long,” Michael says. “But we feel the attention to detail makes the difference. We feel like that’s what is making this work and what’s going to make it last.” It’s that kind of commitment that ensures a very good idea—introduced by generations before, and refined by two brothers today—will continue for years to come.
Susanna Graham-Pye is a freelance writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.