Karen Flynn bought The Bite in Menemsha, in 1988. With the help of her sister, Jackie Morgan, her brother Michael Flynn, and their mother Barbara Flynn, she has been serving food from the small shack on the corner for 25 years. We asked the sisters a few questions about those years.
What brought you to the Island, and how did you come to own The Bite?
KF: I’ve been here since 1975. We moved here from Black Cat Island in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. I was working at the Home Port as a waitress in the summer of 1987, and I told Will Holtham, who owned the Homeport at the time, that I’d like to own my own business someday, and he suggested that I buy The Bite from him.
JM: Our mother brought all three of us [Karen, Jackie, and Michael] here. I went to high school here. After, l went to Worcester State University, then lived in Boston for 10 years. I met a guy through a mutual friend and moved back here. In 1991, I started at The Bite, and have worked there since.
Karen, what was it like starting out on your own?
KF: I’ve worked in restaurants my whole life, so I just went down there and cleaned up, opened the doors, and that was it. I knew how to fry clams. It’s a small place, and everything was already in its spot, so I just started cooking.
Jackie, what did you think when your sister bought The Bite?
JM: I was like ‘okay, she’s going to take on this venture.’ I didn’t even know The Bite. I’d gone by it when it was a dress shop in the 1970′s when Deb Hancock owned it. But I’d never eaten at The Bite, I’d only seen it when I would go to Menemsha Beach.
Spring came and there Karen was at The Bite all by herself. She didn’t have me and Michael around during that time because we were doing our life. The first summer was a wake-up call of ‘this is tough, this is hot, this is greasy. This is a lot more than I ever expected.’ But, as the years went by she continued to do it, and in 1991, when I came, it made life a heck of a lot easier for her.
What’s it like working so closely with your family?
JM: Hard. Very hard. Siblings can drive each other crazy sometimes. But we obviously can do it. Karen has wanted to throw Michael’s radio out into the marsh, and I’ve seen it done. I’ve seen radios go flying, I’ve seen a stool go flying, I’ve seen a body go flying. We have our moments, but for us, it works. We’re a very close unit. My father died when I was eleven, Karen and Michael were in their teens, and that’s what brought my mother to Martha’s Vineyard. She just picked up and moved us. Since he passed forty years ago, we have been a unit of four people — my brother, my sister, my mother, and I. So when we ended up all working together — without even planning it, it just happened — we just fell into it, and here we are. It worked.
What has changed since you bought The Bite 25 years ago?
KF: Menemsha has gotten very popular and busy; it’s a little more crazy down there in the evenings. We’ve added a few menu items, mozzarella sticks and jalepeñ;o pepper poppers. But the fried clams have always been the best seller. That hasn’t changed.
What are some of the most memorable moments?
JM: We’ve had celebrities come in, and that’s always exciting. Diane Sawyer, James Taylor, Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Matt Dillon, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, President Clinton, after he was president. It’s fun when a famous person comes. We feel good about it, and we leave them alone. You place your order, you act like everybody else, and we treat you like everybody else. I think that’s why they like The Bite. If you’re starstruck, you run around the corner in the back where no one can see you, and you look in the mirror to make sure you don’t have clam fry or something funky on you.
The day of the fire was incredible. To see the community all band together and take care of each other, and freak out together. That was a memorable day.
I was at the salad bar, and I look out the window, and I see this black smoke, blacker than I had ever seen in my life. I only had one order going, which was unusual. I lifted the fry-baskets, and then I ran out the door, past the customers, over to Crick Hill. I see this fire and I thought ‘Holy Christmas.’ So I run back, I finish cooking the food, and I wrap up the order and get it out the door.
My brother was right there with me, so we shut the register off, grabbed the key, ran back outside, and the rest was history. We were running around rampant for the next three hours, being with the neighbors, looking at the fire. Michael’s hosing down The Bite to make sure it doesn’t go on fire. We heard a rumor that the fire jumped to the other side, and I actually thought for one minute that that was it, The Bite was going to burn down.
We just hung out in Menemsha for hours. Normally, if I could leave for the day at three-o-clock in the summer, I’d be gone. But we stayed until eight-o-clock at night, the fire was out by then, but we hung around, just to stay there.”
My favorite part of the story is, before you do anything else, you still get the customer their food.
JM: Because, you know, those customers would stand there, damn it, and they would want their food. Even if The Bite was burning down, they’d still be saying ‘do you have my medium clams?’
You must get some tough customers.
JM: The customers can be pretty funny, pretty rude, pretty expecting. They’re great, but you can get some real pains in the ass. You get a lot of laughs out of that. You can get upset, and you have to go back to that corner I told you about, where you can hide. I’ve seen people round that bend and do everything from sob their eyes out to laugh their butt off. There’s that safety where no one can see you, and you need that. You can’t be exposed to the public 24/7, and not be able to hide for at least one minute.
What is the hardest part of your job?
KF: Just how busy it gets. The hardest part is the hours you keep, but you know it’s only for the summer, so you keep plugging away.
JM: No days off. We work straight from May until we close, and that’s just the way it is. It’s hard, but it goes by fast, and it’s lots of fun, more laughs in my life than you could ever imagine, and more stories to be told. It’s a great place, and it’s been my life for 25 years now.
Memorable moments are when the slips go around the carousel, and then you have to line them up by the cashier. It’s so busy, and you just do not see any light of day for a while. But you have to jam through it. A simple mistake can screw you up for 20 minutes, so the challenge is making sure you’re always 100 percent prepared for it.
It’s a lot of physical work, it’s a lot of being on your feet and heavy lifting. Then when you have a heat wave, there’s no relief. And the older you get, the harder it is.
What do you love about working there?
KF: I love the employees I’ve had. I always enjoy the kids that work with me. I had one woman come back this summer that I haven’t seen for 24 years. I have a lot of the same kids come back every summer. And the regulars. We have our old friends who have been coming for 25 years.
JM: I’ve seen kids grow up from one year old to 25 years old. I’ve seen people born, I’ve seen people die, everything as far as knowing someone for 25 years.
I love being able to walk out and see the marsh, the birds, and the deer on the edge sometimes. It’s just beautiful. In the morning when you get up to Menemsha and you hear the bell down on the buoy ringing — ding! — and it’s otherwise quiet. I think what better place to be right now in my life? The beauty of Menemsha is what really makes me love my job at The Bite. I wouldn’t want to work that hard anywhere else.
Why do you think The Bite has been successful for so many years?
JM: I think it’s because of Karen, Michael, and Jackie Flynn. We’ve come in to help make it successful, but Karen is the key. Karen went in and perfected that place.
KF: I’m very particular about the way things are done. We have a system and we stick to it. And the good employees I’ve had have made us successful.
JM: Karen has made The Bite the success that it is, and I’ve learned everything I know from her. The Bite is The Bite because of my sister.
The Bite is now closed for the season, but will reopen in May. For more information call or visit thebitemenemsha.com.