BBQ, a bunny and a billboard's vegan message

Rochester’s Smoak BBQ pulls rabbit out of a hat to land on its billboard.

Emily Whitcomb and Ren the Rabbit
Emily Whitcomb and her rabbit, Ren, are pictured near a billboard featuring Ren on Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Somebunny special is featured in the latest billboard for a popular Rochester restaurant.

Ren is a 4-year-old, white Holland Lop rabbit dappled with dark spots with adorable floppy ears, and she’s also the newest spokesbunny for Smoak BBQ.

Rochesterite Emily Whitcomb brought Ren home when the rabbit was just 10 weeks old in February 2019. At the time, she had no idea that her new cute companion would one day be the rabbit pulled out of a hat to become a billboard star.

Whitcomb, who works a variety of jobs including teaching music lessons, choreographing, and acting in medical-based scenarios to help medical professionals practice their skills, has been eating a plant-based diet for about 15 years.

“I've never been enthusiastic about eating meat,” she says. “For me, it's been a texture thing.”


Her choice to eat a plant-based diet drew Whitcomb’s attention to a Smoak BBQ billboard off of north U.S. Highway 52 in Rochester that read: “Loved by millions hated by Vegans?”

Changing the message

“I felt that the implication that there are angry vegans directing their rage toward Smoak overshadowed the messaging the billboard was trying to convey,” says Whitcomb. “Any BBQ place can claim that vegans don't like them, but one that is frequented by vegans is more impressive.”

Samantha Eich, a general manager at Smoak BBQ who has worked for the restaurant’s parent company, the Rocket Restaurant Group, for the last four years, says the initial billboard was intended to be humorous.

“We did have a few people get upset, which was not our intention,” says Eich. “We have lots of friends, family and guests that are vegan, and we just wanted to get people's attention since we are still a newer restaurant.”

“Smoak actually has a plant-based section on its menu, and I have enjoyed many meals there with both omnivore and vegan friends,” says Whitcomb.

Knowing that vegans could enjoy Smoak’s plant-based offerings, Whitcomb decided to suggest a more positive message “Confirmed Vegan Approved” on a billboard featuring her adorable floppy-eared rabbit Ren.

“I proposed my idea, sent a mock-up of the initial design, and the pros that Smoak works with took it from there,” says Whitcomb, mentioning that the management at Smoak and the owners at their parent company “were very responsive and positive.”

Eich says that Smoak BBQ features quite a few plant-based options on its menu. “We offer an array of salads. We also offer vegan wings, and vegan patties that are often used on top of salads, or on sandwiches,” she says. “The ‘Vegan Approved’ phrasing appealed to us because it lets customers know that we do have vegan options on our menus, and vegan customers, Emily being one of those customers. We felt it was very simple, light and to the point.”


The process of making the new billboard was “expedited.”

“We had to move quickly as our contract on that board was almost up. We ended up paying a higher rate to keep it there longer. We felt it had to make its first appearance there, since that was where our other message was. We received the pictures from Emily, and basically took her design and made a few tweaks. We worked alongside the designers at Reagan to make the board a reality,” she says.

A star is born

Ren will star on the Smoak billboard until April 25, but may be popping up on other billboards soon. Eich says the design may appear in other areas over the following months.

Whitcomb even took Ren on a field trip to see her billboard. “I've taken a lot of photos of Ren over the years, but have never seen her image that big,” says Whitcomb. “I don't know if she recognized herself, but she did turn around and look up at it for a while, so who knows.”

She’s gotten some texts from friends asking if Ren was featured on the billboard since the rabbit is pretty recognizable.

“Since sharing the news, there have been people who have told me they went out to eat at Smoak for the first time and others who have commented positively about seeing the billboard out in the wild,” says Whitcomb. "A lot of people thought I had just photoshopped Ren onto it and that it wasn't real. It's still a bit hard for me even to believe, but it is real.”

“There are certainly more crucial issues that I try to lend my voice to, but I do think it's important that Smoak changed their billboard,” says Whitcomb. “It shows that they are willing to listen and adjust to their patrons, and it highlights the accessibility of plant-based food options.”

Whitcomb also says she is grateful that Smoak compensated her for her design and also made a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Awareness walk coming up in May.


Ren’s stint as a “celebunny” might be just beginning.

“I would love to support Ren in future modeling endeavors, particularly for local businesses,” says Whitcomb. “I think there is a lot of potential for her to partner with different companies. Breweries have hops, salons could use an honorary hare-stylist, bookstore patrons always love a hoppy ending, car dealerships could promote their fast and furriest deals and banks can use her in promotions labeling Ren as a million-hare.”

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