Last summer, Eastern Market restaurant Bunny Bunny announced its closure citing the heavy cost of doing business. But in the months since, the eatery known for its creative takes on South African Indian and American South cuisine continued promoting menu specials, pop-up appearances, even a Friday the 13th movie night.
All signs suggesting that the spot wasn’t closing at all were confirmed in a newsletter published by the ownership on February 16. “After some careful thought, we’ve decided that we are going to stay in the space and finish our lease that extends through 2024,” read the announcement.
Instead, co-owners Justin Tootla and Jennifer Jackson have installed an ordering counter where the bar is located and edited the menu to stick with a more abbreviated list of fan favorites. “As everyone has seen over the last three years (wow- that’s wild 3 years!) the dining landscape is constantly changing and we’re doing our best to adjust and adapt. Through these processes we will hopefully create a model that is sustainable for us and the guest,” the newsletter continues.
Tootla tells Eater that he and Jackson came to the decision to continue operating out of the space through the end of their lease but needed time to consider a more efficient format moving forward. In the meantime, the spot has emerged as a venue to support the work of emerging pop-up ventures like the now defunct Val’s Pizza, Big Girl Detroit, and Park Ranger.
“I guess we were never really ready to leave the space. It just took some adjustments to figure out what model really works,” says Tootla. “Like any restaurant, if you’re not busy as soon as the doors open until they close, it’s not entirely sustainable. It’s not that we weren’t busy, but we just weren’t busy enough to keep this model going.”
This latest iteration is the third major shift in Bunny Bunny’s journey. When Tootla and Jackson — both alumni of Voyager in Ferndale — opened the restaurant in the former Gather space in 2020, it was originally intended as a takeout-friendly, regional Chinese spot. In less than a year, that menu was scrapped.
“I think when we open we just felt it was very textbook cooking, and we kind of felt a little detached, like, cooking out of cookbooks,” Tootla tells Eater. “We learned a ton, but it wasn’t our food. [That’s when] we decided to lean into our culture.”
Tootla’s father is a first-generation South African by way of the Indian state of Gujarat, while Jackson was brought up in Georgia, so the menu evolved to focus on the regional specialities of South African Indian, meets the American South. Among the highlights of this mashup, Indian hot chicken, beef and potato curry, and the spot’s popular butter chicken roti, which Tootla likens to an Indian-style burrito.
While menu shakeups are inevitable in the restaurant business, Bunny Bunny’s pivot mirrors the struggle of many food businesses in Detroit and beyond over the past few years since emerging from the turmoil of the pandemic.
In October 2021, Brooklyn Street Local’s Deveri Gifford announced her beloved Corktown diner but has since reemerged with some modifications to streamline its service. On the east side, Molly Mitchell of Rose’s Fine Foods shared in September 2022 that she was putting the business up for sale, but has since opted to begin focusing on food access and education for Detroiters with plans to launch a kitchen garden cooking school.
Bunny Bunny is now open 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday 1-9, and on Sundays Big Girl Detroit’s smash burgers and chicken biscuits are available from noon until they sell out.