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SCOTT SIMON, host:

How would you feel about a little fried rabbit or barbecued rabbit or rice with rabbit gravy? Well, until it closed in the mid-1990s, those dishes were standard fare at the Venz Rabbit Hutch in Logan, Alabama, but food was just part of the experience in that restaurant.

In the first part of our summer series, Place and Memory, produced by Shea Shackelford and Jennifer Deer, we pay a visit to the Rabbit Hutch.

(Soundbite of crickets)

Unidentified Man: Well, good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Rabbit Hutch here in beautiful downtown Logan, Alabama. I hope everybody's enjoying their food, and we have a special treat for you. Ann Venz(ph) is coming up here. If everybody would, let's give 'em a nice, warm Rabbit Hutch reception for Ms. Ann Venz.

Ms. ANN VENZ: Hi, I'm Ann Venz. My husband is Fed Venz, Sr.(ph), and we opened the Venz Rabbit Hutch restaurant and ran it for 16 years.

Mr. STEWART JACKSON(ph): I'm Stewart Jackson.

Mr. REGGIE HOLDER(ph): And I'm Reggie Holder.

Mr. JACKSON: It was a small place. I remember the organ and the cash register seemed to be right next to each other.

Mr. HOLDER: She cooked the rabbit, and then he served it, and then she made her way to this Hamilton or Wurlitzer organ.

Ms. VENZ: Then, when everybody was served, and I'm dripping with perspiration, I go to the little back room, and I would wipe my face and put on some makeup and run out to the organ and sit down and do some music.

Mr. JACKSON: And then sang their theme song, "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."

Mr. HOLDER: And it was so lovely because these people were so invested in this.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. VENZ: (Singing) Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail. Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way…

Ms. VENZ: Fred always wore white pants, red suspenders, and he had this huge rabbit head, and he had rabbit shoes that he wore. We had a curtain that covered the door going into the kitchen, and he would open up that curtain and come out with his little rabbit head on.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. VENZ: (Singing) Here comes Peter Cottontail…

(Speaking) We leased an old country store with an old post office on one side, and that became our kitchen. When we first opened, we only had like six or eight tables, and we did have a customer that couldn't get a seat. He said the next time I come, I'm bringing my own table. That gentleman was Joe Sides(ph) from Birmingham, Alabama, and he ate with us for 16 years.

Mr. JOE SIDES: So the next time I went, I loaded the table and six chairs up and took them to the restaurant and formally donated them to Fred and Ann. So that became my official table. Every time I would go, they would take me to my table, and they had a coffee cup with my name on it. At the time, I didn't even drink coffee, but Fred didn't know that. So rather than disappoint him, I learned to drink coffee, and I still drink it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRED VENZ, JR.: All right, my name is Fred, Jr., Fred Venz, Jr. I am the oldest son of the family that has the Rabbit Hutch restaurant in Logan, Alabama. When we decided we were going to try and open the restaurant, it was rabbit every night. That was pre-Internet. So you'd look at an encyclopedia, or you'd go to the library, and maybe there'd be some crazy recipe for hasenpfeffer. The ones that really stuck out were the fried and the barbecued.

Mr. SIDES: Across from the restaurant was an old softball field, and we would drive up from Birmingham and get a bucket of rabbit livers, sit down on the bleachers. And that was a fantastic way to spend a spring afternoon.

Ms. VENZ: My oldest son and I did the majority of the cooking. Fred and the younger son, Eddie, waited tables. Both boys ended up in the military, so it ended up that Fred and I were a team. And of course we work really well together.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. FRED VENZ, SR.: Well, we wanted to be independent. And we wanted something that we could raise and stay on the farm and not go off and work. I talked to a few chicken people and they really control the poultry industry back here. And I don't guess we had enough money to go into chickens.

Ms. VENZ: That was the clip of Fred Sr. It was a show that was done by the country reporter out of Birmingham.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. VENZ, SR.: The Rabbit Hutch is getting a little bit famous in this part of the country. It really is. And some of our customers drive 106, 108 miles roundtrip to eat with us. And they'll do it at least once a week. Or if we miss them, we'll call them, you know, and say, hey, you know, I got a light bill due. What's wrong, you know? And when the people, when they get company from out of the area, they bring them here.

Ms. VENZ: He joked. He was entertaining.

Mr. HOLDERS: He was probably the best dressed in Logan, which is kind of like saying the best ballet dancer in Fort Worth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: This was a man who I thought was proud to be where he was.

Ms. VENZ: Fred developed a severe heart problem and had to have surgery.

Mr. F. VENZ, Jr.: He couldn't continue to do what he wanted to do. And eventually the doctor told him, look, you're either going to give that up or you're going to die. It's too much.

Ms. VENZ: We decided that we needed to do that immediately. So when we walked out Sunday evening, that was the last night that we were ever open. And I'm very sorry that he's not able to speak with you. He's fine. He's healthy. It's just that it's such an emotional thing for him.

Mr. VENZ, JR.: It really broke his heart to close the doors. It really did. He felt an obligation not only to a vision that he had but to his customers. And when he locked those doors up, he really felt that he's let the customers down. And that's one reason that my father is just not interested in talking about it. But that just shows you the level of commitment the family actually had to it. Yeah.

Mr. JACKSON: I loved that this was a man and a woman who had a dream about how they wanted to live and they pulled it off.

Mr. HOLDERS: If you only went once, you remember the experience. And I still have people come up to me and say, you know, is that Rabbit Hutch place still open? We like to go down there. And I have to sadly tell them that it's no longer in business.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. VENZ: We just want you to know that we're happy in life. We miss all of our customers and we miss the Rabbit Hutch. That 16 years that we spent in the business there really gave us some wonderful, wonderful memories. And I hope you felt what we wanted our customers to feel when you came there, that you felt like a part of our family, that we cared, and that we gave good service and served great food, and wanted you to come back as soon as possible.

(Soundbite to recording)

Ms. VENZ: (Singing) ...here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping' down the bunny trail, hippity, hoppity, Happy Easter Day.

SIMON: We heard from Ann Venz of the Rabbit Hutch and her son Fred Venz, Jr., as well as former customers Reggie Holders, Stuart Jackson, and Joe Sides.

SIMON: If you remember a place that was important to you but no longer exists, we'd like you to share your story at placeandmemory.org. Place and Memory is produced by Shea Shackelford and Jennifer Deer of Big Shed Media. It's part of the Maker's Quest, a project of the Association of Independence in Radio, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. To learn more, go to npr.org/quest.

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