Bunny Bunny chefs Jennifer Jackson and Justin Tootla are also implementing shorter work weeks and equal pay among front- and back-of-house staffers.
Opening a new restaurant in 2020 is a nearly Herculean. You don’t yet have the dependable cushion of regulars, there’s apprehension surrounding the safety of outdoor and indoor dining, and, of course, there’s the looming threat of rent.
But for Jennifer Jackson and Justin Tootla, who recently left Detroit’s acclaimed seafood restaurant Voyager, the pandemic provided an opportunity to turn the traditional restaurant model upside down.
“We’ve got decades of working in this industry, and we’ve worked for $10 an hour, even in our thirties. It isn’t right,” said Tootla. “There’s no reason the restaurant business can’t be approached like any other business, where we can offer things to our coworkers instead of taking advantage of them.”
Bunny Bunny, the couple’s Chinese-American spot that quietly debuted with a takeout-only menu in Detroit this August, is an intriguing concept for several reasons. First and foremost, neither Tootla nor Jackson are Chinese, although both cooked at Thank You, the Asian-inspired kitchen inside Chicago’s popular Lost Lake tiki bar. Instead of burying this fact, they own it.
“Jen’s from the South, and I’m half East-Indian, so I came from a mixed background,” Tootla said. “I think conscious cooks have had to deal with the issue of representation for a while now, but I think in the last year, it’s become more and more our responsibility to deal with it and have an open dialogue.”
“We always wanted to have a Chinese restaurant,” he continued. “The other side of that, though, is asking how we’ll approach a different culture’s cuisine responsibly.”
Part of that responsibility lies in this kind of honesty; another, more tangibly, is rooted in Bunny Bunny’s mission of donating a percentage of its profits to organizations like the local Chinese-American association.
“Jen and I aren’t in the market to buy a yacht,” Tootla said, laughing. “If we’re gonna cook someone else’s culture, the least we can do is to not profit off it.”
The restaurant’s most ambitious goal is to eventually operate as a non-profit. After signing their lease, Tootla and Jackson sat down with their small staff and asked them what they needed to live comfortably, in terms of wages and benefits. Both front-of-house and back-of-house staffers are paid equally by the hour, and are tipped out equally at the end of service.
“The idea of the profit model has to change,” Tootla said. Beyond meeting the restaurant’s operating costs and payroll, Bunny Bunny aims to put all of its profits back into the surrounding community.
While running this fundamentally different kind of restaurant has been a dream for the couple “for many years,” Jackson admits that the pandemic served as a catalyst to make it happen.
“When COVID started, we scaled back hours to essentially work a 9-to-5, and Justin and I were able to spend time in our home and have a garden,” said Jackson. “Being able to do all of those things put into perspective for us that everyone needs a day to have fun, clean, and a day to get ready to go back for the week. Working in restaurants is hard no matter what and no matter how great we make this space, it’s tough on our bodies, and rest is super important.” To give their staff a sense of true balance, Tootla and Jackson decided to implement a four-day work week.
When asked about how they’re able to make it all work––from the abbreviated work week to the charitable contributions from profits––Tootla says it’s a matter of control.
“We have no investors, and that’s one of the biggest reasons we can switch to a nonprofit model sooner rather than later,” he said. “We have to pay our parents back, but we’re free to control this business as we see fit, and we think that’s huge as independent operators.”
He continued, “It sucks and it’s hard, but I think in five years, we’ll see a return on all of this struggle in a positive way. We want to be a small voice and change the way we all work in this industry.”