Networking over sushi and vodka

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News
Our/Detroit created a wasabi martini to complement the sushi rolls available during Social Sushi events.

Sitting inches apart at the Our/Detroit bar in Detroit, sharing fresh sushi rolls and laughing, Detroit residents Katia Robinson and Xavier D. Johnson could have been mistaken for old friends. They actually met just a few minutes before.

The two were among the roughly 80 people who came out one recent Saturday night for Social Sushi Detroit, a networking pop-up co-founded by Jay Rayford and Grace Montero that is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. The weekly event brings Detroit residents and suburbanites together over Detroit-inspired sushi (the What Up Doe roll features Better Made potato chips and Faygo Rock & Rye). Organizers use social media to spread the word. No press releases necessary.

Robinson, a 28-year-old infection preventionist at Sinai-Grace Hospital, saw the event on Facebook and decided to check it out. Johnson heard about Social Sushi through Rayford, who convinced Johnson to try his first piece of sushi — a california roll with a “special sushi sauce.”

“The sauce was amazing. It keeps me coming,” says Johnson, 24, owner of the software company “Now I’m a regular sushi eater. I’m not afraid of anything because I haven’t died yet.”

“People go absolutely nuts over this sauce,” Rayford says while describing what he and Montero created. Social Sushi chef Tanaya Hutson of Wixom divulged the recipe includes mayonnaise, Sriracha sauce, soy sauce, sugar and two other ingredients she pledged not to reveal.

Social Sushi co-founders Jay Rayford and Grace Montero created their own sushi sauce that includes mayonnaise, Sriracha sauce, soy sauce, sugar and two other ingredients they won’t share.

The orange-colored sauce is just one of the secrets to the success of this networking venture, which plans to expand into a full-time restaurant this summer. Originally, Social Sushi served as a pop-up, or what Rayford calls a “social catering experience,” by bringing the food and the people to fundraisers and events at venues, including the Renaissance Center, Henry Ford Innovation Institute and the Michigan Science Center.

This month, Social Sushi has posted at Our/Detroit, a micro distillery part of the Our/Vodka parent company. Each distillery — Our/Amsterdam, Our/Berlin, Our/London, among others — sources local ingredients for distinct flavors. Detroit was the first U.S. site and uses a corn alcohol base from the Hiram Walker plant 10 miles away in Windsor.

More than a bar, the space supports cultural and entrepreneurial innovations in the community, says Our/Detroit partner Kate Bordine.

“When (Our/Vodka’s) Pernod Ricard came to the states ... they fell in love with this entrepreneurial spirit here in Detroit and was kind of making a statement by opening here,” Bordine says.

Bordine and her business partner, Catherine Kelly, transformed a liquor store on Bagley Street into Our/Detroit in 2014 and have since welcomed artists, photographers, deejays and pop-ups to host events.

“We’ve been able to tease out the local narratives here and shine the spotlight on other people who are doing amazing things,” Kelly says.

It’s a win-win for all parties — take their partnership with Social Sushi, which attracts a healthy crowd for what some may consider an unusual pairing.

“I think Vodka and sushi go really well together,” Bordine attests, adding that they even concocted a Social Sushi-inspired wasabi martini.

But that drink and Social Sushi wouldn’t exist if Rayford hadn’t returned to Detroit, where he was born and raised, after leaving the state for four years. In 2010, he worked as an electrical engineer in Princeton, New Jersey, but the office life began to burn him out, and he entertained thoughts of coming home.

“When I first started telling family and friends I wanted to come back, they were just like, ‘Don’t do it. There’s nothing happening here. Don’t do it,’ ” he recalls, talking over Motown music blaring in Our/Detroit. “This was pre-2010. It killed me inside. I was like, ‘Man, where’s all the hope?’ ”

During a visit, he attended a community parade on Livernois brimming with parents and children. It solidified his decision to return.

“Something about it, I just started crying,” he says. “I was like, ‘I have to come back home. I don’t care. I’m moving back.’ ”

Once home, Rayford pursued everything that he says “makes Detroit’s culture.” He floated from music, fashion and young professional groups, to nonprofits and tech startups.

“I was literally at everything all the time all around the Detroit area,” says Rayford, today a 32-year-old community director for The Futures Project, a nonprofit that helps high school students find their passion.

Social Sushi co-founders Grace Montero of Windsor and Jay Rayford of Detroit launched the weekly pop-up event in March 2012.

After a while, he and his friend, Montero, saw a problem with the city’s social groups: The dancers never crossed paths with the artists who never mingled with the athletes.

“Every time we went to a different event, it was the same old people at each event,” says Montero, 39, a manager at Reebok who lives in Windsor. “We were like, ‘How can we interconnect them and bring them all together?’ ”

Discussing the dilemma while dining on sushi, an idea began to take fold. Montero’s cousin was a sushi chef — so was Rayford’s uncle. They could combine their food and social networks to bring a bigger, more diverse guest list to events in the city. In March 2012, they hosted the first Social Sushi at a Chinese restaurant downtown.

“Once we saw how people were coming together and how people loved it, we were like, ‘Man let’s get this thing going,’ ” Rayford says. “(We had) no thought about opening a restaurant one day, no thought about ‘Hey, let’s do this for four years.’ ”

Social Sushi nights now attract upward of 70 people, typically ages 24 to 45, who filter in and out from 5-10 p.m. every Saturday.

“If I had to describe them, it’s folks who are … really involved in the community in some way or are just excited to be in the city and think this is a great way to meet people,” Rayford says.

Robert “Bub” McDonald, 27, joined the leadership team after attending one Social Sushi for the networking.

“I just fell in love with their vision of what they were trying to do,” says McDonald, a dental sales representative who lives in Milford. “I’m passionate about seeing (Detroit) grow. Even just opening up one restaurant or one pop-up can make a big impact, and it’s exciting to have a little part of it.”

David Wilson, 37, drove from Novi after a long day working at AT&T because he says he wanted good sushi and to support “young adults trying to bring something new to Detroit.”

The Social Sushi crew is working with the Motor City Match to secure funding for a permanent space where they envision hosting community events, open mic nights and live entertainment. And, of course, there will be a full sushi menu.

“Over the years, it organically blossomed to something more than I could have imagined. It’s exactly how Detroit is,” says Montero, referring to business growth in the city.

On Thursday, a group of male leaders from the black network BMe sat on stools, digging into What Up Does freshly rolled by Rayford (the chef trained him to take over when she’s not available). The topic of the night: How BMe members could better collaborate to boost each other and the community.

Given that Rayford’s a 2014 BMe leader, one of their own, it made sense that they chose to meet for sushi in the middle of Mexicantown.

“We came to support an entrepreneur who’s making a difference in Detroit,” BMe leader Dr. Truman Hudson Jr.

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Detroit-Inspired Sushi Rolls

Created by Chef Tanaya Hutson

Dragon Roll: Crab sticks, julienne cucumber sticks, tempura shrimp, avocado slices, Better Made chip crunch, eel sauce and Social Sushi sauce

What Up Doe Roll: Tempura shrimp, smoked salmon, cream cheese, cucumber sticks, avocado, Better Made red hot chips, Rock & Rye eel sauce and Social Sushi sauce

The Wasabi

Martini Recipe

by Our/Detroit

2 ounces horseradish and wasabi infused in Our/Detroit vodka

1 ounce simple syrup

Splash of lemon

Garnish with wasabi peas

Shake in a martini glass