“A locally sourced restaurant, run by workers, owned by workers, shared by the community,” pretty much sums up The Red Rabbit’s ethos. Chef Sean Collins is a Stratford Chefs School graduate, instructor and previously head chef at Mercer Hall before its sale last year. Collins terms his cooking as “Flavour First, Ingredient Driven.” He also says, “We cook food we like to eat.”
One of Stratford’s most anticipated openings last summer was The Red Rabbit, which opened in mid-July. Stratford born Jessie Votary and Collins left Mercer Hall to build the community-shared restaurant on Wellington Street with partners/workers Jonathon Naiman (sous chef), Adam Robinson (front of house), Tyson Everitt (Doctor and resident soda jerk and fermenting specialist), Steve Walters (front of house) and Gen Zinger (front of house).
Votary, who has been fittingly labelled the restaurant’s fearless leader and the mastermind behind the business, recently said, “The notion for the restaurant was born out of necessity and inevitability. We all sat down and agreed that we didn`t really want to do this for someone else anymore. If we were going to work 80 hours a week and throw our whole heart and soul into something, we should do it for ourselves. It didn’t make sense to have a money man at the top taking all the profits. Nor were we interested in trying to squeeze an additional dime out of every plate that comes out of the kitchen.”
With 100 shares at $1,000 each, The Red Rabbit’s ownership group raised a percentage of the capital they needed to finance their project. They then turned to an innovative financing model akin to community supported agriculture (CSA), but in this case adapted for the restaurant business. They modelled it primarily after colleague Anne Campion`s business model at Revel Caffé which itself is a spin on a CSA model that Ruth Klassen at Monforte Dairy pioneered in the Stratford area. Campion and Votary both believe in the importance of supporting new models of community-centred businesses that strengthen and help build communities.
Interested subscribers were invited to purchase restaurant futures in the business. This raised an additional $57,000 in funds, which helped them get the doors open by paying for opening wages and putting inventory in the bar and the kitchen. The futures will be reimbursed in prepaid meals over a period of time. Votary says, “We were looking for investors, but we were also looking to build community around our vision.” The bank put up the rest of the capital through a business loan. At the time, Collins called it “a somewhat radical concept.”
Votary and Collins and the passionate and focused team poured their blood, sweat and tears to get the venture open. Located in a former bridal shop on Wellington Street (off Market Place) Votary refers to the premises as initially being a blank white box. The Red Rabbit seats 45 comfortably with an additional 10 seats at the bar.
Collins leads the talented kitchen team, along with sous chef Jon Naiman. Other members include partner Everitt and newer members Lee Avigdor and Greg Him, formerly of Susan Dunfield’s Down the Street.
The instantly successful, down-to-earth, farm-oriented restaurant is built on years of deep symbiotic relationships that are at the heart of The Red Rabbit experience. There is a dedicated focus on Perth County ingredients from area farmers like Church Hill Farm, Perth County Pork Products, McIntosh Farms, and Soiled Reputation.
The team has crafted an evolving menu of Southern-style comfort foods. Divided into omnivore, carnivore and herbivore sections, the dinner menu offers Colonel Collins’ fried chicken, duck poutine, Perth County “hammed” pork shoulder, rabbit and leek pie, BBQ celery root, creamy fried polenta and duck egg with chermoula. The menus have also included addictive house-made salumi (beef heart pastrami) and delicious rillettes of rabbit. During the day we like the breakfast with fried eggs, local pork, beans and focaccia.
We have driven to Stratford several times for a delicious repast of Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles. Its secret recipe of thirteen herbs and spices, maple syrup and carrot hot sauce, served with house-cut fries has made it a Stratford culinary staple.
The heat quotient on the spicy hot chicken sandwich with sweet pickle, tzatziki, house-made bun and hand-cut fries is just what the doctor ordered. A newer addition to the lunch menu are four perfectly prepared falafel on a bed of lettuce, (for wrapping), which is served with perfectly seasoned tabbouleh and tiny pots of harissa, tahini, garlic aioli and the traditional pickled turnip. Sensational.
An important difference between The Red Rabbit and other restaurants is the amount of creative input that the staff members bring to the table. Close-knit relationships are central to the core of the restaurant. The service is welcoming, heartfelt and friendly. Most of the front-of-the-house service professionals were previously restaurant managers or owners. Long-time Stratford restaurant professional extraordinaire Cassandre Frost is the new restaurant and bar manager.
This past winter the team surpassed all of their expectations as well as crushing every target they had set for the restaurant. The team consistently seated more than 100 covers every Friday and Saturday night throughout the winter. The success of the “small plates” tradition called Nosh Mondays was unparalleled with a waiting list each week.
This summer they are planning to knock things out of the park. The team will be reintroducing the prix fixe menu, an arrangement that is meant to expedite the challenges of pre-theatre dining where theatre-goers arrive and depart simultaneously. After 7:30 the focus will be on a local á la carte menu.
Chef Kris Schlotzhauer recently joined the team. Votary says, “He is putting his chef whites away and joining the front of house crew, transitioning into the general manager role as he learns the ropes.” Schlotzhauer was born and raised in Stratford, and has spent the last four years in Toronto where burnish his name and reputation at the much lauded Enoteca Sociale. Attracting plenty of media attention, he has been working to balance work and life roles for his staff. As a vocal champion for fair working hours and pay, his philosophy is closely aligned with The Red Rabbit’s, making him a natural fit.
There is plenty of growth potential for both staff and partners to transition into a new venture in the future. In the meantime, are you in search of a watering spot that serves great craft and house-infused cocktails and flavourful food? Going “down the rabbit hole” is the almost perfect metaphor for embarking on a down-to-earth culinary adventure at The Red Rabbit.
The Red Rabbit
64 Wellington Street
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.