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Can this grilled cheese shop help fix our broken criminal justice system?

(L-R) Tomas Reynolds, Nei’Yana Roby, Chris Dolan

(L-R) Tomas Reynolds, Nei’Yana Roby, Chris Dolan Colleen Guenther

Picture a place that offers nearly every service a person needs after prison.

It provides full-time work and a living wage, things that can be almost impossible to find once you have a criminal record. It hosts classes in personal and professional development, on everything from making a budget to civil rights to social media marketing. Staff members are on hand to help you get ready for the future, whether that means applying for school or formulating a business plan, and there are regular check-ins and group discussions about restorative justice. It even has mental health and wellness services onsite, available free of charge.

Were you picturing a tiny south Minneapolis grilled cheese shop?

Late last year, a cozy neighborhood spot opened on the corner of 41st Street and Minnehaha Avenue. Each afternoon, the sun-filled room hums with the chatter of young families and tapping of laptop keys; at night, neon lights give it a calm, electric glow. Gooey sandwiches sizzle on the griddle behind the bar before they’re nestled next to small piles of greens and fries. Everything smells like cheese and butter.

It’s cliched to say that a restaurant “looks at first like any other” before diving into whatever minutiae sets it ever so slightly apart from its contemporaries. But here, that distinction is important. Because the sandwich shop does operate differently than any other restaurant in Minnesota and just about any in the country: One hundred percent of its employees have been to prison.

This is All Square, the brainchild of Emily Hunt Turner, a civil rights attorney who spent most of her career working in prisoner reentry and fair housing with the Department of Housing & Urban Development.

The Leadership: (L-R) Tommy Franklin, Emily Hunt Turner, Heather Olsen, Roslynn Pedracine, Tommy Harris, Sara Stamschror-Lott. Artwork by Richard Amos.

The Leadership: (L-R) Tommy Franklin, Emily Hunt Turner, Heather Olsen, Roslynn Pedracine, Tommy Harris, Sara Stamschror-Lott. Artwork by Richard Amos. Colleen Guenther

It’s a job that sounds rewarding, which belies the slow and often futile work. In her time with the department, she saw up-close the myriad ways in which the system fails people who have served time. It’s legal, for example, to deny housing to those who’ve been incarcerated—even government-subsidized public housing. She describes her work there as an exercise in extended frustration and “being pissed at HUD.”

It’s not just finding a place to live, either. Universities and employers are allowed to ask applicants if they’ve been convicted of a felony. Drug and alcohol treatment, job training, and mental health services are difficult to track down and tough to afford once you do. You’ll find an undercurrent of prejudice in almost every facet of reentry, a sneering disdain attached to terms like “ex-con.” All that contributes to the United States’ high recidivism rates.

“People have gone to prison, done their shit, and they’re being punished as much as 41 years later,” Hunt Turner says, referring to one case she worked on while she was with the department.

Those years with HUD made her angry. They also got her thinking about alternate ways to shift the system. Maybe Emily Hunt Turner the government employee couldn’t help people find stable housing, or apply to college, or convince an employer to hire them. But could a business meet needs the government wasn’t? Could a restaurant?

After years of planning, organizing, and fundraising, All Square opened in September.

The nonprofit restaurant is a “civil rights social enterprise,” and if that sounds like a lot of words for “sandwich shop,” that’s because it does more than just supply people with jobs and meals.

“A paycheck, a guarantee that you can work X amount of hours a week—it’s a good start,” says restaurant and creative director Tommy Franklin.

“We’re not just out to reduce recidivism,” Hunt Turner adds. “We’re not just out to provide minimum-wage jobs. We want to generate leaders. That’s who we are and what we do.”

All Square’s 12 once-incarcerated employees—the restaurant uses the term “justice impacted”—are there Tuesday through Friday. From 11 in the morning until 9 at night, they serve up sweet and savory creations like the Punch ’n Crunch (cheddar, jalapeños, Sriracha ranch, Chili Cheese Fritos) and the Jerk Chicken (rotisserie chicken, Swiss, provolone, guava jam, Jamaican jerk sauce).

They’re there on Mondays, too, though the griddles stay cool while everyone heads into the space next door for that week’s All Square Institute.

This is the part most lunchtime guests don’t see, and it’s the thing that sets the restaurant apart. Designed to accommodate 10 to 14 justice-impacted persons—“fellows”—at a time, it offers two main tracks: entrepreneurship and law. They’ve assembled a team of experts and guests to help lead classes, and partners include the Brennan Center for Justice, Hamline Law School, and Yale Law.

Fellows leave the yearlong program with a six-month post-graduation plan, plus a résumé, references, and a network that’s there to help them if they need support in the future.

“Everything under our mission of providing paychecks, power, and pipelines to prosperity,” says program director Tommy Harris. “Whatever that means to you.”

There are a few similar operations: In Cleveland, Edwins Leadership & Restaurant employs the formerly incarcerated and provides access to housing, legal services, and literacy programs. But Edwins deals in French fine dining; it’s $40 plates and white tablecloths, not $7 sandwiches and draft beer. It also sticks to culinary and hospitality skills, while All Square focuses on entrepreneurship more broadly.

Personal development is integral too, from lessons on making a budget and building wealth to mental health and wellness services. The institute has two therapists on hand, and all of this year’s fellows have opted to participate in both weekly one-on-one meetings and a restorative circle with leadership and fellows.

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The name “All Square” is a play on the sandwich shape and the idea that folks who serve their time are supposed to be “square” in the eyes of the law. You don’t need to have restaurant experience to apply. You aren’t expected to specify your career goals when you interview. The institute ensures its fellows have transportation and business attire, and everyone is issued a company phone.

What graduates do with their institute training is entirely up to them. Some will go to law school; one entrepreneur plans to open a mobile beauty business.

And yes, a few fellows in the inaugural institute plan to put their grilled cheese-flipping experience into practice with food trucks or restaurants of their own. You can see their handiwork as new sandwiches appear on the menu. One recent addition, a Mediterranean-style sammy with cucumbers, hummus, and thyme-infused butter, boasts a name worthy of a spot on the Bob’s Burgers specials board: Did My Thyme.

There are nods like that to the All Square ethos all over the restaurant, though at first, founders weren’t sure to what extent there should be. It takes serious strength of character to be so forthcoming about your past, and to be employed by a restaurant where every shift is an intrinsic reminder of it.

“It’s a big fuckin’ deal to ask someone to work in a place that, like, puts them on blast, and we do not take that lightly at all,” Hunt Turner says. “We’re going to be very real and very honest about who we are and what we do, but we knew that what would come with that would be: Everybody who comes in here knows everybody who works here has a record.”

The mission isn’t keeping any diners away—or if it is, those people aren’t missed. All Square raised $60,000 through Kickstarter to get off the ground in 2016, and the Minneapolis Foundation and Still Ain't Satisfied Foundation have awarded them with grants to fund operations. An ongoing GiveMN campaign has brought in another $106,000. Just this November, Wisconsin’s Crystal Farms donated a year’s worth of cheese and butter to the cause.

It’s an ethos that’s resonating with the neighborhood, too. Harris says they’re “blowing revenue projections out of the water.” (“There are some people that come here six days a week—there’s one person I’m a little nervous for,” Franklin adds, chuckling.) Just before the holidays, someone tacked on a $500 tip with their bill.

“These guys are getting tipped so well,” Hunt Turner says. “Let’s be real, that is kind of badass. People are coming in and intentionally investing in you and tipping you. Let’s celebrate that... that’s a big fucking deal.”

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Speaking of big fucking deals: If you can’t consider it one already on account of its pint-sized footprint, All Square is poised to reach that level soon. In December, the viral Facebook video makers at Now/This shared its story in a three-minute clip that has nearly 528,000 views, and more and more news outlets outside Minnesota are catching on. Fast Company wrote about the mission shortly after the grand opening—“Every employee at this grilled cheese restaurant has a criminal record”—while Delta’s inflight magazine gave them a hat tip in a recent “new and noteworthy” section. There was a Thought Catalog profile. Even Oprah shouted out the mission-based eatery on her “Super Soul Conversations” podcast. (No, they haven’t met O herself... yet.)

There’s been plenty of national praise for the building itself, too. Created by award-winning architects Jonathan Louie and Nicole McIntosh, the eye-catching neon-accented space is the opposite of a gray-and-white prison cafeteria. At night, it makes its little corner radiate like something out of Blade Runner, a design that’s looking toward the future like the employees inside. “This Glowing Grilled Cheese Restaurant Offers the Formerly Incarcerated a Fresh Start,” the NYC-based architecture and design magazine Metropolis cooed earlier this month, and they were only the latest to profile the eatery, after the Architect’s Paper and Architectural Digest.

Not bad for a shop selling $6-$8 sandwiches.

“We’ve seen incredible growth overall from where we started until now,” Harris says. They’ve already expanded, taking over the building next door where the institute’s classes are held. Eventually, Franklin would like to see that address used for even more: a space for youth or members of the community to come together or host events.

And their plans don’t stop with Minneapolis. “We wouldn’t call it a social enterprise if we didn’t intend to scale,” Hunt Turner says.

Growth isn’t what drives them, but one of their long-term goals is to transform the narrative around having a criminal record. “One way to do that is to scale our business model and our brand,” Hunt Turner says. There have already been a few requests to bring the concept elsewhere, and they’ve talked about replicating All Square’s original model in Fargo, or New Orleans, or as near as Hunt Turner’s hometown, St. Paul.

For now, though, they’re focusing on making the institute as valuable to fellows as it can be. All of this is new—for Minnesota, for the country, and for the folks serving sandwiches and giving lectures at All Square every day. The first group of fellows aren’t yet halfway through the program.

“Obviously, changing the system from within... it’s going to take several years,” says Franklin. “Not two, not three, not five. Sometimes 10 or 20. But to be just a little tiny solution in this little pocket of Minneapolis, to begin with—it seems like a small piece, but it’s a tremendous challenge. And a tremendous responsibility and honor to get buy-in and trust from the community.”

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“It’s a trial every single day,” Hunt Turner says. “I would never sugarcoat just how difficult it is for us to continue to work out all these things.

“I’m crazy excited to see where it goes,” she adds. “That’s way more purpose than I was ever able to extract as a housing lawyer.”

In the meantime, they’ll make you a mean grilled cheese.

All Square
4047 Minnehaha Ave. Minneapolis
612-787-7164
allsquarempls.com