When Ken Gemmill moved to Charlotte in 2010 from Pennsylvania, a simple question he would ask new friends before mealtime would frequently be met with the same nonverbal response.
On cue, one side of a lip would raise, a nose would crinkle, and at least one eyebrow would scrunch down to join in a facial expression of discontent.
How about sushi?
Try as he did, Gemmill couldn't find anyone around town who shared his yen for delicate raw fish wrapped in rice and vegetables. That is, until he turned to technology, and started Charlotte Sushi Lovers on the popular networking website Meetup, which introduces people who share the same interests.
Now at 132 members and counting, Gemmill, who lives in the Noda district while studying at ITT Technical Institute's north campus in University City, has reeled in more fish-lovers than he can believe.
From bankers to stay-at-home-moms, he has found that the people who love sushi are as different as the kinds of sushi rolls on a menu. "It goes up and down the whole spectrum," said Gemmill.
When Shannon Stinson moved to Charlotte from Orlando, Fla., recently, she was thankful to find the club. "Sushi is a nice thing to do when you want to socialize with somebody," said Stinson, 26, a marketing specialist now living in the Chatham neighborhood of University City. "It's a nice thing to sit around and have sushi rolls and talk. You can swap sushi and trade sushi and try everybody's."
Growing up, sushi was practically a staple for Stinson. "We had a little area where I lived in Winter Park called Park Avenue. There were quite a few different sushi places, and also in downtown Orlando it was quite popular as well."
Sushi has become popular in Charlotte over the last 20 years, too, said Chris Allen, 33, a former chef at La Bibliotheque in Charlotte, who recently joined the club.
Allen first tried sushi in 1992, when the head chef offered him a slice of sashimi-grade fish. "I was a little apprehensive to eat it at first. The chef wasn't from the U.S. He was from Morocco," said Allen, who worried he was not protected by the same immunities as the foreign-born chef.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate sushi-grade seafood but does recommend seafood industry suppliers freeze fish intended for raw consumption at -4 degrees Fahrenheit for seven days.
Allen, who eats sushi twice a week, often at Sushi 101 near his home on Back Creek Church Road, doesn't worry anymore about becoming ill from sushi. "Your fish should never have a slimy texture to it," he tells people new to the raw food. "It shouldn't smell like fish. It should smell like the ocean."
Gemmill admits he was once one of the doubters who turned his nose up at sushi. Four years ago, he tried it on a date and was forever hooked. "Up until that point, I was like a lot of people, I didn't think I wouldn't like it. "
Now he eats it at least once a week with the sushi-loving friends he's made. "When you think raw fish, you think slimy. How's that going to taste good?" he said. "But it's not even like that."