How Dr. Sushi’s illegal Corktown pop-up turned i...

How Dr. Sushi’s illegal Corktown pop-up turned into a sustainable business

Dr. Sushi started by selling fish out of his apartment. Now he dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar location.

Nicholas George, aka Dr. Sushi, runs a sustainable sushi business in Detroit. Courtesy photo.

Nicholas George has loved making sushi for years. In 2012, making rolls in his Corktown apartment, he had a thought: others might like it too. So he began posting ads on Craigslist, and before he knew it, an unlicensed sushi pop-up takeout shop was in operation. He called it Dr. Sushi.

In under a year, George had stopped making apartment sushi and started popping up at spots like St. CeCe’s (now closed), MOCAD and other venues. He soon realized he needed professional experience to transform his DIY fish slinging into a legitimate operation. A Colorado culinary job at an upscale restaurant on a ski resort became his next stepping stone. He called the job a “culinary bootcamp.”

He recalls taking a gondola to work in late 2015, and going snowboarding a lot. During his time there he was in charge of making salads while also preparing hundreds of dishes. 

George says the experience was great for learning how the back of restaurant operations work. 

He returned to Detroit in 2016, armed with new experience and ideas about how to run his sushi business on the up-and-up. He spent hundreds of dollars on temporary food establishment licenses and rented space in a community kitchen in Southwest Detroit in 2017, allowing him to host regular pop-ups at bars and restaurants around town.

These days, Dr. Sushi is a legal operation. It runs out of a Southwest Detroit commissary kitchen where takeout is available every Tuesday. As it grows, George is looking for ways to build an ethical business.

“My mission is to kind of figure out where the balance lies, how can we do this sustainably,” George said. “Not just from an ecological standpoint, but from a holistic standpoint, one that values the lives of our employees and their well being.”

George is concerned about the shortage of fish due to overfishing in the oceans. He strives to get his vegetables from local farmers, and tries to source the fish from the Great Lakes as much as possible. He sources his produce from local farms, including Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, Fisheye Farms and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. 

“The ocean is a finite resource, we need to treat it as such,” George said. 

Dr. Sushi offerings. Courtesy photos

Currently, George operates as a one-man show. He’s looking to crack the code of how to add workers who will be able to earn a living wage, while maintaining affordable pricing for his customers. 

“I would like to figure out a way for this industry to still make sense,” George said. “I want to be able to enjoy this work. The industry is rife with problems, such as low wage jobs with no benefits, and just a culture of abuse. Which leads to a culture of drug abuse, addiction, alcoholism and working yourself to death.”

George said he built his business through lots of collaboration with the local food community, often using the barter system. He was one of the founders of the Detroit Pop-Up Alliance, a network for pop-up owners to share resources, find venues, navigate confusing regulations and develop their businesses. He offered assistance to the entrepreneurs behind flourishing food businesses like Baobab Fare, Flavors of Jamaica and Sisters on a Roll, and before the pandemic partnered with Brooklyn Street Local to host monthly pop-ups and sushi-making classes.  

While George would like to take the next step of building a brick-and-mortar business, financing is a big hurdle. George was offered a Motor City Match grant in December 2018, but when it came down to bids on different locations, he was quoted $750,000 just to get started. 

“How do I get a loan for $750,000 to renovate someone else’s building? I won’t even own it,” George said. “And then how do I get that done in a timeframe in which a landlord or a property owner is okay with?”

As pop-up and catering bookings took a dive in 2020, George focused on takeout and his gardening hobby, which started with an interest in bonsai trees and became a full-on “pandemic obsession.” He recently started a landscaping business after working on friends’ yards, and occasionally trades customers sushi for perennials from their gardens. 

 But he’s still dreaming of a brick-and-mortar, while wondering if a sustainable sushi bar will work in Detroit.

“Detroit doesn’t have population density like a lot of other places,” George said. “ And so our culinary scene is going to suffer from it. But the other side of that token is maybe we have too many restaurants. Maybe people should treat dining out like a special occasion and not an expectation.” 

George currently plans to continue growing his business while serving customers his favorite dish, a vegetable futomaki. It’s 100% vegan and mixed with Inari, which is a rice-based Japanese vegetable protein. George uses it to honor the culinary tradition of Japan. 

“The reason I like that roll is because I get to use stuff that’s grown in Detroit, and put it all together in a new and creative way each week,” George said. “It’s always different, always delicious, and it’s very sustainable.” 

Dr. Sushi offers weekly carryout on Tuesdays at 2547 Bagley St. — place your order by Monday at 4 p.m.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz contributed reporting.