What's Up, Doc? A Real-Life Elmer Fudd Tries to Turn Rabbits into Riches

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Move over, Whopper; here comes the Hopper. And watch out, Colonel Sanders, there's a new extra-crispy critter in town. It's the latest thing in fast food: Southern-fried rabbit. That's right, Bucket o' Bunny.

"I just want people to try it," says Richard Stewart, 46, the founder of Hop-Scotch in West Lafayette, Ind., purportedly the nation's first fried rabbit restaurant. Some folks, of course, consider Stewart's notion a real (Watership) downer. He received a half-dozen hate letters and calls that said "I was a cruel, money-hungry fiend." But he shrugs off the charges. "We can't convert everybody," he says. "There are a lot of people who don't like pizza or Chinese food either." He also points out that eating rabbit is no worse than eating veal or lamb: "Anybody who's ever seen a baby calf or a lamb," he says, "knows that they're cute little things, too."

There's clearly nothing harebrained about this scheme, for business has been, yes, hopping right along since Stewart opened just two blocks from the Purdue University campus last Jan. 24. He has already had to expand his dining room and expects to gross $300,000 this year, almost 10 times his $35,000 investment. Stewart's frying up 100 or so rabbits a day and hopes to franchise soon.

Hop-Scotch offers barbecue and sweet 'n' sour sauce for its rabbit meat, which looks pink but tastes similar to chicken. Economy ($1.94 buys a two-piece dinner with a biscuit) is one selling point, and if that doesn't do it, Stewart says, "I'm gonna hammer away at the nutritional value of rabbit." It has more protein and less fat than chicken, beef or pork. A pound of rabbit has 581 calories, versus 791 for chicken, 1,165 for beef and 1,397 for pork. "This is not junk food," Stewart says. "It's health food."

Stewart was a furrier before he became a restaurateur. But being a good businessman, he wanted to make use of his leftovers. He got interested in the bunny biz in 1978 when a friend showed him some pelts from a Canadian rex rabbit, a special show breed that doesn't shed, which makes it perfect for fur coats. In 1980 Stewart quit a 16-year insurance career to help establish Royal Rabbit Inc., which sold breeding rabbits to "ranchers" and bought back their pelts. Last year he left because of disagreements with his partner (among them: The partner didn't want to sell rabbits as food) and started Rex Rabbit Development Corp., which buys pelts from 92 independent rabbitries the company has set up in Indiana. Stewart hopes to be processing 26,000 rabbit pelts a month by June 1984, and once he gets U.S.D.A. approval for his slaughterhouse, he'll use his own rabbit meat in his restaurants instead of buying it from a Kansas supplier.

In August Stewart will start taking orders for custom-made rabbit fashions designed by wife Barbara, 28 (his second marriage, her seventh). Under their Rex-glama label, they'll sell brown bunny bomber jackets for $2,200 and full-length, 25-pelt, chinchilla-colored coats for $3,400 (a bargain compared to real chinchilla at around $20,000).

Stewart has no pets, certainly not a rabbit. "If you begin hanging names on your rabbits," he says, "you're in trouble." And this, of course, is a rough week to be in the rabbit trade. The local Kentucky Fried Chicken has launched a "Help Save the Easter Bunny" campaign. "I figure," says Stewart, "we should keep a low profile on Easter."

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