Caffe Boa, in Tempe, and Boa Bistro, in Mesa, have touched a nerve with their plans to serve a rabbit-based menu on Easter Sunday.
"People just don't realize what wonderful pets rabbits are," said Doreen O'Connell, a volunteer at Brambly Hedge Rabbit Rescue in Phoenix.
"They're just the sweetest pets, so good-natured and funny and loving. And like any pet owner, when you see that on a menu you think how could somebody take my sweet pet and slaughter it and eat it?"
Executive chef Payton Curry, who planned the menu, said they had received more than 100 e-mails and messages about their plans. Last night, he said, the messages were running about 80-20 against the menu. By this afternoon, though, it had more or less evened out.
Feelings were running high.
One anonymous caller, Curry said, wished him a slow and painful death and told him he would end up in hell, then hung up.
"I try to unlearn people like that," Curry said.
In a press statement released Tuesday morning, Curry and Caffe Boa owners Jay and Christine Wisniewski stressed that the rabbits they serve are not domesticated bunnies.
"They are all-natural, free-range rabbits raised in humane conditions ... ," they wrote.
O'Connell, though, thinks they are not that different from her house pets.
"I think (Wisniewski and Curry) underestimate the number of people who have pet rabbits," O'Connell said. Curry notes that rabbit has long been a staple ingredient of European diets and has become something of a dining trend in the United States.
A story in the New York Times documented the growing popularity of rabbit dishes in upscale restaurants across the country, and a workshop Curry held on the preparation of rabbit on March 21 was sold out.
Curry said the rabbit being served in the restaurant is no different than chicken, duck, lamb, pork or beef currently on their menu and that he and Wisniewski get many requests from their guests for more rabbit dishes.
Their holiday menu, Curry said, was simply a way to respond to that demand.
"I didn't do this to create a stir or insult or offend anyone," Curry said. "I grew up in Minnesota eating squirrel with my grandfather. To me, it's just food. I don't see what the big deal is."
Curry talked about how he works regularly with farm animals and only buys from farms where they're raised humanely. Just last week, he said, he personally helped a cow in distress.
"I don't just sit around thinking about how to slaughter and eat everything," he said. "These rabbits (we use) are wild. They need to be out on a farm, running around and not penned up in someone's backyard pen or apartment."
Curry and Wisniewski recognize that a rabbit-based menu is not to everyone's taste.
"We are doing something different, I know," Curry said. "It's making a few people upset, but we're bringing awareness to a lot of people who had no idea they could get this sort of cuisine in Tempe. I think it will be great for the dining scene."