A new Chinese takeout and delivery operation is preparing to open inside the former Gather building in Eastern Market this summer. Chefs Justin Tootla and Jennifer Jackson plan to debut Bunny Bunny next week, featuring a range of cuisine from Sichuan Province, Hunan, Shandong, and beyond. The restaurant will share the space with returning beer bar Cøllect on the second floor, which closed last October.
This is Tootla and Jackson’s first solo project together. The longtime collaborators and partners are dipping into their savings and drawing on the skills of family to assist with the buildout for an eventual dining room. Diners can expect a bit of a 1980s look with bright colors and lots of pink. To start out, they invested primarily in kitchen equipment including a custom-made wok. The pair recently left Voyager in Ferndale, an acclaimed seafood restaurant and raw bar that they helped open in 2017. Later this fall, Jackson, originally from Athens, Georgia, will open a Southern all-day cafe in the former Takoi prep kitchen in Core City with developer Phil Kafka. That as-of-yet-unnamed restaurant is scheduled to debut sometime in October.
Jackson and Tootla have some experience cooking American Chinese food. Together, they collaborated in the kitchen at Thank You Chinese in Chicago before a fire abruptly shut down the business. At Voyager, they took the opportunity whenever possible to incorporate Chinese techniques and ingredients. “We’ve always felt like our our exploration of Chinese food was was never finished,” Tootla says.
Bunny Bunny’s menu will be organized by region and feature cuisines from provinces such as Guangdong, Hunan, and Sichuan. Bunny Bunny, whose name comes from a game the pair used to love as kids, teases dishes like zi ran yang ru (cumin lamb), pai huang gua (cucumbers and cloud ear mushrooms in chile oil), bi feng tang chao xia (typhoon shelter shrimp fried in garlic, ginger, and bread crumbs), and yuxiang qiezi (fish fragrant eggplant fried in garlic-chili sauce). Initially, customers will be able to order their meals online or by phone for carryout or through Postmates. Eventually, depending on the situation with the novel coronavirus and the comfort level of staff, Bunny Bunny will open for dine-in service with a dim sum brunch.
All that being said, Jackson is white and Tootla is Indian American, and they’re opening a Chinese restaurant in a city that has a fraught history in its treatment of its Asian-American residents. Detroit used to have a prominent Chinatown, which was relocated multiple times due to developments and the overall decline within the city. The racially motivated killing of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man living in Detroit, in 1982, created even larger racial barriers, and many Asian Americans now live outside the city in suburbs like Madison Heights. Recently, the novel coronavirus has resulted in more division and incidents of racism against people of Chinese descent — particularly Chinese-American restaurants — in the United States.
Tootla and Jackson are conscious of their forthcoming restaurant’s place within wider conversations around race and appropriation in the food industry. “We’re hyper-aware of representation, and, especially now, in this era, what it means to profit from representing another person’s culture and how to do it responsibly and how to explore responsibly,” Tootla says. “We’re not putting Chinese food through our lens. We’re not approaching it as chefs.” Tootla and Jackson say that, instead, they focused on learning about regional Chinese cuisine through reading, watching videos, and talking with friends in the industry who were more deeply versed in the food. The pair want to make an effort from the get-go to reinvest some of their profits in community organizations, including those that support the local Chinese-American community in Detroit. “I think, a big part in the future of dealing with this idea of representation — if we are representing food from another culture — is to maybe not make a profit off of it,” Tootla adds.
Like many people working in restaurants during the pandemic, Jackson and Tootla have found that the upheaval gave them time to reassess their roles in the industry — one that’s known for grueling hours, high rates of substance abuse, and financial insecurity among its employees. Jackson and Tootla chose to chart an alternate path forward to build a restaurant that provided good food and service, but also took care of workers and the community. The pair brought fellow Voyager alums Joey McClelland and Samantha Stackpoole to help run the kitchen at Bunny Bunny. All four are starting at the same pay rate, and the restaurant will operate only four days a week to give each of the workers a three-day weekend to decompress from the stress of operating a restaurant. “We have an open dialogue with our staff,” Tootla says. “[We ask,] ‘What do they need from us to have a safe and productive life?’ and we’re going to give it to them.” The owners hope to eventually transition the business into a nonprofit. “Once you kind of take money out of the equation, we really start to focus on each other and communities,” Tootla says.
Like any nascent business owner would be, Jackson says they were nervous to start two new projects during a global health and financial crisis. “We’re freaking out. But on the other hand, we wouldn’t have these opportunities if we weren’t in a pandemic,” she says. “We’re taking each day and just doing it step by step and figuring it out. And we do have time, because it is our money and nobody’s pushing us or breathing down our neck.”
The past few months have “really made us realize how much we love this city,” Tootla adds. “We really want to be active participants in the conversation of how we rebuild and how we reshape these restaurants. We’ve always wanted to be different, and now that these are our places, we can be different and we can run our restaurants differently.”
Bunny Bunny is aiming to open next week, pending one last inspection from the city.
Bunny Bunny is located at 1454 Gratiot Ave.; once open, the restaurant will operate from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and noon to 9 p.m. on Saturday; call 313-947-6122 or place orders at the website or through Postmates; customers may take food to the rooftop bar space operated by Cøllect.
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