Against odds, a worldly culinary niche ditches the burgers and dogs in downtown Watertown –


Brent and Hammi Hamann, owners of Moon Rabbit in Watertown, prepare the offerings for drive-up customers at their pop-up restaurant in the city’s downtown. For more than 60 years the site was home to Schuett’s Drive-In, but in 2017 the Hamann’s purchased the restaurant and radically altered the menu.

WATERTOWN — The name, food, hours and business model are all unexpected and out of the norm for this city dissected by the Rock River, clinging to its German past but trying mightily to move forward.

For more than 60 years, Schuett’s Drive-In offered up a staple of deep-fried hot dogs, grilled hamburgers, grease-laden onion rings and cones of soft serve. The fluorescent lights over the front awning would glow from late spring to late fall but go dark during the colder months of the year.

Remarkably, for the last three years, those traditions have been uprooted by Moon Rabbit, a pop-up restaurant owned by Brent and Hammi Hamann, who have combined their cooking and social media skills to take their customers on a worldly culinary journey. Dishes, which typically range from $9 to $12, can include smoked brisket tacos, Indonesian noodles, shrimp beignets, deep-fried catfish with dirty rice, and beef shawarma, all made, when possible, from locally sourced meat and vegetable producers.

On a recent Friday night, there wasn’t a piece of cod or perch to be found on the menu. The $10 special was a Caribbean/Levant mashup of jerked chicken, falafel, black bean and pineapple salsa, Jerusalem chopped salad with rice and flatbread.

“It’s a different concept and ridiculously hard at times, but we want to make it approachable,” Hammi Hamann, 35, said. “The idea is to essentially get the things here that you can’t get anywhere else in town.”

The menu changes each night, customers order in advance through Facebook and the lines for pickup invariably form within a one-hour window on the days they are open, typically from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Although this week, through Thursday, lunch is being offered from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Jazz music is a constant at Moon Rabbit, but the menu changes daily and represents the world. It can include deep-fried catfish, smoked brisket, dirty rice, shawarma, Indonesian noodles and falafel. Moon Rabbit co-owner Hammi Hamann assists in the kitchen, but also runs the restaurant’s social media.

About 50 percent of their business comes from outside of the city limits, some from as far away as Madison and Milwaukee. The jazz music is sourced more than 1,000 miles to the south. WWOZ radio is streamed live from New Orleans and pumped through speakers inside and outside the restaurant, named after the mythical rabbit, it’s shape seen on the moon pounding away in a pestle.

“It’s a real escape for people here,” Brent said. “We ask a lot of people to take the journey with us. But without social media, I don’t think we could make it.”

Food trips in this city of about 24,000 people have, in general, been on the more conservative side of the culinary spectrum.

Moon Rabbit co-owner Brent Hamann prepares a pot of dirty rice in the kitchen of the business in downtown Watertown. Hamann grew up in the city, but honed his cooking skills for 20 years in New Orleans.

Zwieg’s Grill, Elias Inn, Mullen’s Dairy Bar, Phil’s Pizza and more recent additions like Rock River Pizza Co. and the Mexican restaurants Amado’s and El Mariachi remain go-to options. Something along the lines of Moon Rabbit falls way beyond the norms here. This is a city with a deep heritage of brewing and corner bars, but a Sprecher’s restaurant quickly failed, and the city does not yet have a brewpub. The Drafty Cellar on South Third Street, however, offers up a solid lineup of craft beers, pinball machines and video games.

Watertown is home to a growing Latino population, the 113-year-old Carnegie library is once again expanding and Sharp Corner at the east end of the downtown is now a park. Most notably, a massive redevelopment project is underway in the 100 block of West Main Street to create a town square along the river. On an adjacent property, T. Wall Development plans to build an $11 million mix of retail and upscale housing designed to bring more people to the downtown.

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Food orders placed online at Moon Rabbit are delivered through a window by co-owner Hammi Hamann, left, to her mother-in-law, Linda Strauss.

“Truly, these investments are providing significant opportunity for Watertown to strengthen its economy and provide better quality of life for our local businesses and residents,” Mayor Emily McFarland said last month.

Moon Rabbit is helping, in its own way, with the city’s transformation and using a robust presence on Facebook and Instagram to get the word out.

Brent, 50, is a graduate of the Culinary Art Institute of New Orleans, spent more than 20 years in that city with stints at Brennan’s and the Audubon Nature Institute’s Tea Room, and remains a restaurant consultant, which has taken him around the world setting up restaurants and kitchens, sometimes in remote areas. But he grew up on South 12th Street in Watertown and went to school at St. Mark’s Lutheran School just a few blocks away from what is now Moon Rabbit. His father owned Ken’s Auto Body, and his grandfather Rogers TV & Appliance. His Uncle Calvin owned Schuett’s.

For 60 years, the condiment bar at Schuett’s Drive-In Watertown held ketchup, mustard, onions and relish. But in 2017, new owners created Moon Rabbit, a restaurant with an international flare. The condiments can now include corn salsa, shredded Cojita cheese, chipotle aioli and a house coleslaw.

Hammi grew up all over the world, including Guam, thanks to parents who were in the U.S. Navy. She has a career working with computers and information technology systems and since 2013 has worked remotely from home. She met Brent when she visited and he was working at the Audubon tea room. They were set in 2016 to move to Germany, where Brent had lined up a restaurant consulting gig, but at the last minute the deal fell through. On a visit to Watertown they noticed a “for sale” sign in the window of Schuett’s — founded in 1954 as Zesto’s — which had closed for the season.

“We were here and we drove by and we saw the sign and, you know, the thought bubbles started coming,” Hammi said.

Food orders are placed in advance online and customers pick up their food between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. Linda Strauss, mother of co-owner Brent Hamann, is occasionally charged with handing off orders to customers who drive up through an alley alongside the restaurant.

They opened Moon Rabbit in May 2017, but it took a bit for the community to get its head around the new setup, where the restaurant was only open for a few hours each night. Prior to COVID-19, a typical night would mean opening the walk-up window at 5 p.m. and selling food until it was gone. Lines would often stretch down the sidewalk. On weekends, there were also breakfast and lunch hours. But since the pandemic, the Hamanns have shifted gears and offered drive-thru pickup, which requires orders to be made in advance. On some nights, they’ve distributed 100 orders in an hour and have clogged traffic on nearby Sixth Street.

“We have some customers who order almost every night,” Brent said. “Our customers are really great. They let us know when they’re not coming. I’ve never had that happen before.”

Moon Rabbit co-owner Brent Hamann exits a small walk-in freezer in his kitchen.

The Hamanns call Moon Rabbit a second job because they continue to work in their other careers, but can spend more than eight hours doing prep work for their evening rush. When a customer arrives, Brent kicks into high gear grilling, frying and scooping to ensure each meal is as fresh as possible. Hammi helps finish off orders and then hands them through a window to a courier who then shuttles the meal to a customer in a waiting vehicle.

The grill and deep fryer have never seen such a variety of offerings, while the condiment cooler on a recent visit was stocked with corn salsa, shredded Cojita cheese, chipotle aioli and a house coleslaw used to top brisket sandwiches and tacos. They also sell a high-octane cold-brew Vietnamese coffee, have a SnoBall machine for summer treats made with homemade syrups, and on the Fourth of July pay homage to the history of the place by serving up $1 deep-fried hot dogs along with free copies of the U.S. Constitution.

“We’re pushing the boundaries,” Brent said. “It’s like jazz. No two nights are the same.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at