For more than a year, pedestrians on E. Washington St. strolled past a sign in the window of the First National Building declaring that Cannelle by Matt Knio would be coming soon.
Area food lovers recognized Knio as the French-trained pastry chef whose croissants and desserts were featured at shops in Detroit and Birmingham.
But months went by, and the windows remained papered over, with no sign of what was happening inside.
Finally, in late November, the lights went on under another sign: The Great Commoner. Although the long-promised pastries and desserts are on hand, they share the space with a “boutique break café” with an all-day menu.
The shift in names—and scope—explains why the venue took so long to open.
Matt Knio—the K is silent—originally leased the former Schokolad space just to sell his pastries. But he and Zane Makky are also partners with Sam Abbas in Afor Concepts, the Dearborn-based restaurant group that created the Great Commoner. When they discovered that more space was available in the building, they revised their plans to incorporate the café, which also has a location in Dearborn.
However, that meant a much more extensive build-out than the pastry shop would have required, resulting in delays waiting for construction materials and the required permits.
Customers are still greeted by two full glass cases of Knio’s croissants and pastries, accompanied by a long display of fanciful desserts, ranging from fruit tarts to chocolate éclairs, that reflect his training in France. They are made in a commissary in Warren and distributed across the Afor restaurants.
The Great Commoner’s dishes, meanwhile, are cooked to order in the new open kitchen. Breakfast and brunch items range from avocado toast with a fried egg on multigrain bread at $10 to brown butter pancakes at $14 and steak and eggs at $22.
Lunch salads include kale and quinoa, with roasted beets and feta, at $13, while sandwiches include griddled chicken—Abbas’s favorite—at $15, which is also the price of a black bean burger. Soups are available daily and change regularly.
A full line of espresso and tea drinks is available, starting at $2 for a twelve-ounce drip coffee, along with cold beverages.
Abbas expects the split in Ann Arbor sales to be about 60 percent pastry and desserts, 40 percent other food.
Abbas, whose other restaurant holdings in Dearborn and Detroit include Yogurtopia and Brome Modern Eatery, is excited about the dual focus.
“I love opening restaurants,” says Afor’s CEO, an Albion College grad who went on to earn an MBA from Arizona State and become a certified public accountant: “The most fun I have is in the conception and creation of a new brand.”
He’s still learning about the Ann Arbor market, jotting notes when I told him about stores and restaurants staying open late for Midnight Madness and that he should be prepared for crowds during U-M men’s football and basketball games.
Early on, Abbas says he’s found downtown to be friendly, with more foot traffic than he’s used to seeing in Dearborn. “I see the hellos, and people asking about their days,” he says. “That really warms my heart. It might sound corny, but it just feels so right.”
Cannelle by Matt Knio and The Great Commoner, 110 E. Washington St. (734) 519–1300. Mon.–Thurs. 7 a.m.–7 p.m., Fri. 7 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat. 8 a.m.–9 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m.–7 p.m. greatcommoner.com