Two years ago, Emily Turner quit her job as a U.S. Housing and Urban Development attorney to open a grilled cheese restaurant. Turner, who worked on prisoner reentry, housing segregation, and fair housing, was frustrated about not feeling like part of the solution. The restaurant was a new way to fight for justice: To get a job at the nonprofit restaurant, you need a criminal record. On Mondays, when the restaurant closes, employees take classes in entrepreneurship and law.
The restaurant, which opened this September in Minneapolis, is called All Square, a play on the shape of the sandwiches it sells and the fact that after serving time, someone should be able to reenter society with a clean slate. Instead, people who were formerly incarcerated struggle to find jobs, get credit, and rent apartments. Turner had seen a landlord evict one couple with a perfect rental record after finding out about a 40-year-old criminal conviction.
“I really was exposed to some of the grave setbacks of the system,” says Turner. “For me, denying those with criminal records from moving forward is one of the biggest civil rights issues of my generation… I saw tremendous barriers for those with records. And also witnessed the deep privilege I’ve had.”
The restaurant’s board includes a CEO who was a five-time felon, a community organizer who was born in prison and later served time, and successful businessman who was wrongly convicted. Together, they planned a 13-month program for others with criminal records (including some who haven’t been to prison, because just an arrest record can cause problems with employment). Employees, called fellows, spend 30 hours each week working in the restaurant, and are also paid for 10 hours of structured coursework.
The work pays a living wage; employees start at $14 an hour, and are currently averaging about $22 an hour with tips. At a time when the unemployment rate for ex-offenders is nearly five times higher than that for the rest of the population, offering a job is undoubtedly useful. The nonprofit also works with fellows to make sure they have transportation to work, business attire, and basic soft skills before they begin. Mental health caseworkers provide support. But the nonprofit also wanted to go further.
“We don’t want fellows just to survive,” Turner says. “We really want them to excel. In my mind as a professional, excelling means, yes, taking care of your mental health and taking care of your family. But it also means having a really legit career, not just a job.”
In classes, fellows can learn about entrepreneurship, and learn directly from the restaurant’s own experience as a business, from marketing to finances. “We’re walking them through our project, our financial projections with the restaurant where we’re actually at, our break-even points, the hours of the day that we’re not doing as well and the hours a day we’re exploding, and looking at inventory controls and how to gauge that,” she says. Guest speakers will offer training in business skills, from how to create an online presence to financial planning. Legal classes will cover basic criminal law and issues in criminal justice reform.
The process of launching the restaurant has been difficult, in large part because Turner had no experience in running one. “I grossly underestimated how difficult it was,” she says. On Yelp, the restaurant has a 4.5-star rating, though some reviews criticize the restaurant’s early disorganization as it learns how to run smoothly. Employees, too, have had to deal with the challenge of working in a business that makes part of their past public.
“We’re asking fellows to be part of a brand and a business that is very outward facing,” Turner says. “Everyone who knows about All Square and knows what we’re doing and knows who’s going through our fellowship. So that’s a big deal…We’re exceptionally grateful that they understand that this thing is more than just this sort of sympathy approach to ‘we’re hiring these poor prisoners.’ No, we’re taking it stance on systemic injustice.” She hopes to eventually begin working with organizations in other cities to open new locations elsewhere, addressing the problem nationwide.
The restaurant sells a book called We Are All Criminals, which tells stories of people who committed crimes and never got caught–such as smoking pot–alongside the stories of people who are living with the stigma of a criminal record. As people eat a grilled cheese sandwich with apple, brie, and pecans, or pulled pork and barbecue sauce, they hopefully also have a moment to think about flaws of the criminal justice system.
In a few months, the restaurant will begin working with another class of fellows, as some of first employees progress to management positions with more responsibility. As they graduate, she hopes that some may start businesses of their own. “We believe that we have the city’s next leaders in this room,” she says. “They’re not felons, they’re fellows.”