He wanted sneakers, the expensive kind his mother could never afford. So he took a job in the kitchen of a high-end seafood restaurant, cutting romaine and cleaning oysters.

And there, amid the heat and noise and pressure, Joshua Hedquist found out how to get back on his feet.

"School is standardized. If you don't learn that way you're told you're bad or dumb. In the kitchen, it's about watching and doing. I can't read a book and apply it but I can watch a guy and then do it," said Hedquist. "Right away I was good and fast and I loved it."

By the time he happened upon that first restaurant gig, Hedquist was a ninth-grade dropout who had pleaded guilty to three felonies while still a teenager and spent 13 months behind bars. He credits kitchens, and the hustle and creative thinking they demand, for his transformation from dead-end kid to in-demand chef.

Now 41, he wants to show others coming out of prison how to walk the same path. Hedquist conceived Joey Meatballs, a fast-casual pasta restaurant set to open in June in the new Malcolm Yards Market in Minneapolis' Prospect Park, that will include people with rap sheets on its employee roster.

"If you're a felon, there are so many opportunities you don't get. I want this place to be a flagship for second chances," he said. "This is my incubator to see if this can work."

Hedquist dreams of franchising the Joey Meatballs concept coast-to-coast, and he has its first prospective franchisee on deck. Hedquist is mentoring Daniel Campbell, a two-time felon who served time at the federal prison in Rochester.

"I was once a line cook at a sports bar, basically dropping stuff in the fryer, but I have a passion for real cooking," said Campbell, 37. "Now my dream is to help Joshua become successful and eventually be a partner and successful on my own. I'm learning every day. I want to inspire people like Joshua inspired me, to open the door for others. That's the goal."

Campbell has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Hedquist at a series of Joey Meatballs pop-ups around the Twin Cities that have built awareness and interest ahead of the restaurant's debut.

Hannah and Leif Mosier of St. Paul each paid $25 for a three-course meal at a recent pop-up staged at Tilia in Linden Hills. Sitting opposite each other in a booth, they passed their entrees back and forth.

"Holy cow, this is ridiculous," said Hannah, closing her eyes in appreciation as her husband fed her a forkful of scratch-made gnocchi.

Another diner enthusiastically digging into a coiled mound of Hedquist's signature spaghetti was Minnesota Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell, who talked policy over his pasta.

"We need a paradigm shift from focusing on locking people up to seeing them differently. I know from my contacts with them that many feel an obligation to live their best life for the harm they caused," he said. "What Josh is doing is an opportunity for a new lease on life."

Voices of experience

Hedquist thinks Joey Meatballs will rise or fall based not on who's cooking but on the appeal of his food, which he's confident about.

"Spaghetti and meatballs are like puppies and kittens — no one doesn't like them," he quipped. "My meat sauce is meatier, I boost it with beef stock. And on the rigatoni and pesto I use pecorino, it's Parmesan's sexier cousin."

Hedquist brings two decades of hands-on experience to his venture. He calculates that he's worked in as many as 50 restaurants, sometimes two at a time, moving up the ladder from manning the grill to managing the kitchen.

Twice a Food Network prize winner — he competed on "Guy's Grocery Games" and "Ultimate Thanksgiving Challenge" — he's been the driving force at such Twin Cities spots as Giulia, the Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen and Spasso. Currently he's executive chef at Macalester College while preparing for the launch of Joey Meatballs.

Hedquist also chairs the board of the Redemption Project. Incorporated in 2018, the Twin Cities-based nonprofit has worked with about 60 felons convicted of a variety of crimes. The project connects with inmates while they are still incarcerated, leading them through intensive coursework and pairing them with employment mentors in various industries.

Upon release, participants already have housing and an offer of employment, giving them crucial footholds. Research shows that a place to live and a job with a living wage are key to breaking the cycle that claims as many as 70% of newly released inmates who return to jail.

"Getting folks on the right track has bipartisan support; it's not a red or blue issue. If we cut the recidivism rate and stop regurgitating people through the system, it's a win, whether you look at this for the social good it does or from the perspective of cutting crime and the cost of mass incarceration to the taxpayer," said Tim Owens, co-founder and president of the Redemption Project.

A former bank president, Owens entered prison at age 56 on an obstruction of justice charge. That experience, and his contact with fellow inmates, prompted him to create the Redemption Project when his sentence was served.

"I'd never been touched by the criminal justice system and I had preconceived notions about the kind of people I would meet," he said. "My perceptions were wrong. The majority are people who have made mistakes and accepted responsibility for them."

Workforce solution

Joey Meatballs is not the first local restaurant to build a combo plate featuring the formerly incarcerated and food.

In 2018, All Square opened in south Minneapolis. More than a restaurant, it's also a civil rights social enterprise where former prisoners griddle craft grilled cheese sandwiches and study entrepreneurship through its training center.

"Our concept takes a holistic approach. A restaurant is a great place to develop the interpersonal and leadership skills that they need to be successful no matter where they work," said Tatum Barile, culinary director for All Square. "They've been punished but they still face the stigma that can get in the way of them achieving what we all want: a job, successful family relationships, homeownership. We want to shift the dialogue."

There was a troubling workforce shortage before the pandemic began and indicators suggest the job market will tighten again as life returns to normal.

That's why Owens predicts the time is right for inmates transitioning out of the prison system to be regarded as a valuable untapped labor pool. He sees Minnesota as a good proving ground for second-chance employees.

"Historically, our business community built a good track record for getting involved in a meaningful way when a social ill is identified," he said. "If you look at the Redemption Project's strategic plan, we can become a role model. It's not charity, it makes good business sense."

Hedquist is eager to put his concept to the test.

"Cooking gave me immediate gratification and filled my soul. I'm built for this and so are a lot of people who are locked up," he said. "I'm not giving anything to anyone, but if someone has the character and the work ethic, they can prosper. Our message gives hope. Cooking brought me to the promised land. If I can do it, they can, too."

Serving justice

Joey Meatballs: A fast-casual Italian restaurant with scratch-made and locally sourced food. Market at Malcolm Yards, 501 30th Av. SE., Mpls., opening in June. joeymeatballs.org

The Redemption Project: The Bloomington-based nonprofit works to provide inmates with mentoring and employment opportunities. redemptionproject.org

All Square: Nonprofit social enterprise features craft grilled cheese and opportunities for the previously incarcerated. 4047 Minnehaha Av., Mpls. Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m., allsquarempls.com

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.