One menu item stands out on a white board with black press-on letters next to the counter at All Square, a grilled cheese shop in Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood (4047 Minnehaha Av. S., 612-787-7164). And it's not because one of the letters dangles askew. It's the name.
Did My Thyme, with feta, hummus and thyme butter, is a sandwich and a clue informing customers that this restaurant, staffed by the formerly incarcerated, is griddling up sandwiches that are oozing with cheese and policy, seasoned with a dash of irreverence.
Chris Dolan, a 35-year-old cook, came up with the recipe. Dolan spent time in prison and is now a fellow with All Square Institute and Dream Lab, a nonprofit criminal justice reform and re-entry program that offers people returning from prison a 12-month fellowship. Along with personal and professional development — including courses in law and entrepreneurship, community building and mental health — fellows land a job making gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches at this fast-casual restaurant with a purpose.
Using his new skills in entrepreneurship, Dolan just launched an online wedding boutique. He is also applying to law school, thanks to a strong LSAT score and guidance he has received through the institute. He plans to focus on criminal law. "I have a client base built in with all of the people I know," he quipped.
But for now, he's dreaming up and making "fancy sandwiches" for customers who may or may not know that the staffers who are serving them have also served time.
"We're really trying to take a radical approach to re-entry," said Emily Hunt Turner, 35, All Square's founder and CEO.
A civil rights attorney and hockey coach, Turner worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where she tackled issues of fair housing and segregation. Again and again, she reviewed tenant selection policies in public and private housing that denied tenancy to people with a criminal record, regardless of the record's age, relevance or accuracy.
After five years with HUD, she left and spent the next two years working with formerly incarcerated mentors to develop a business, and a brand, that could invest in people affected by the justice system while challenging barricades to re-entry, such as difficulty securing employment and loss of voting rights.
"What's the point of going to prison and doing your time if you get out and then you're just punished?" Turner asked. "We find that so often, just existing and surviving post-incarceration is the standard, and we're looking to challenge and change that."
They're 'all square'
It's no accident that the grilled cheese sandwich is the focus of All Square. The shape of the sandwich symbolizes the organization's belief that people who have served time have settled their debts; they are "all square."
And, said Turner, "Cheese is a binding ingredient. It's become very symbolic: 'Let's come and break bread.' " Best of all, grilled cheese is fun. "It kind of tempers the intensity of some of the conversations that come with criminal justice reform."
This isn't the first prison re-entry program built around food. For example, a restaurant in Ohio trains formerly incarcerated individuals to work in fine dining. But Turner wanted food to be the side dish. Education, investment and empowerment are the main course.
Fellows work 30 hours a week and earn $14 per hour base salary plus tips. It amounts to about $30,000 a year, no small change for a population that faces an unemployment rate five times higher than the general U.S. population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, when the restaurant is closed, fellows attend entrepreneurship classes, where they learn how to build a business plan, and legal classes, where they learn to leverage the knowledge they gained from their own cases in pursuit of careers in law. The institute's classroom, aka Dream Lab, is in a neighboring room in the same building, and is lined with books on criminal justice reform, memoirs and U.S. history. The Dream Lab will soon host yoga classes, community open mic nights, panels and film screenings (and is available for the public to rent).
Why a Dream Lab? "There is a poverty of dreams for those who were incarcerated," said Tommy Franklin, All Square's restaurant and creative director.
Despite having three degrees, and no criminal record, Turner's dream to launch All Square came with setbacks, too. She says she was repeatedly denied loans to start the business, relying instead on a Kickstarter fundraiser, a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation, construction funds secured with the help of two families who guaranteed a loan, and the sale of 70 Grilled Cheese for Life memberships at $1,000 each.
Turner spent two unemployed years bringing her plan to fruition, and in the midst of it all, she lost both her parents.
"My parents dying was almost an affirmation that All Square had to happen," Turner said. "I couldn't just be like, 'I can't do this. It's too much. Some other time.' I still woke up with this extra heartbeat that was just there no matter what."
In all, she cobbled together $250,000, and the restaurant opened last September.
"She's very dogged. She's got a great motor. I can only imagine how she plays hockey," said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of VOTE, a New Orleans-based advocacy organization run by formerly incarcerated individuals, and a founding board member of All Square.
'People meeting people'
With plans for the next round of fellows in motion, All Square's success is largely due to its leaders and participants, Reilly said.
"Doing something good requires making a mess sometimes, breaking some dishes," he said. "Most restaurants fail, and most people in re-entry don't make it through the eye of the needle, so we're going uphill on multiple levels. The fact that it looks like this thing is going to survive, that's a testament to the people that are involved. They're not quitters."
Randy Anderson, founder of Minneapolis' Bold North Recovery, teaches a class to All Square's fellows on addiction and recovery post-prison. He learned about All Square in a post on social media, bought a Grilled Cheese for Life membership, and is determined to make back his investment by eating a lot of sandwiches (90 more should do it).
Anderson left prison in 2009, and continues to come up against barriers because of his record.
"You never stop paying," he said. "You're punished over and over again. When I learned about All Square, I loved that these fellows don't have to rely on the rest of the world. They can make their way. This is their chance."
Since the restaurant opened, Turner has seen customers strike up meaningful conversations with the fellows about much more than criminal records. An open kitchen juts into the snug dining room, bringing both groups together in one stark white and mirrored space.
"We live in a pretty siloed society, in my opinion, and we don't have many spaces where perceived likes and unlikes are together," Turner said. "Here, it's just people meeting people."
Customers will meet any of the fellows at the counter. Such as Nate Howard, a 24-year-old musician who is studying to be a paralegal when he's not slinging grilled cheese.
"It's a way to access things I didn't have access to," said Howard, a rapper who goes by Hollywood Swervo. "There are different ways to make money to help me with my music career," and becoming a paralegal is one he hadn't considered before joining All Square.
And Tomas Reynolds, 24, who wants to launch his own food truck. But first, he's preparing for a baby due this month. "I don't know if it's the grilled cheese, but I got a kid on the way now," Reynolds said. "It takes for me to come here to get a gift. I think All Square brings out the good in me."
And Dolan, 35, the aspiring law student. "More felon-friendly places need to happen," he said. "I know so many people who don't get to go back to work. They get so discouraged."
More than 100 people have inquired about joining the next cohort of fellows, for a job where a criminal record will, for once, not hold applicants back. (The application period opens June 3.)
Nor will a lack of cooking skills. Fellows learn quickly how to make any of the dozen or so grilled cheese sandwiches on the menu, such as the BBQ, with pulled pork and coleslaw; the Punch 'n Crunch, with chili cheese Fritos and Sriracha ranch; and the Did My Thyme.
Sure, the sandwiches are square, but not perfectly so. "None of us are," Turner said. To prove that point, a copy of the book "We Are All Criminals," by Emily Baxter, rests on an easel on the counter. Its photos and stories profile many people who have broken the law, and the race and class disparities that led only some of them to punishment.
"A lot of the people in prison shouldn't have been there in the first place," Turner said. "We know the criminal justice system does it wrong."
And yet those who do end up in the system keep paying long after their sentences end.
It's a cycle Turner is trying to break, one grilled cheese sandwich at a time.