The United States is a country of many problems, and while everyone complains about them, few are offering solutions. One major problem in this country is the mass incarceration and privatized jails that have kept generations of our citizens down - AFTER paying their debt to society. No one seems to want to hire ex-convicts, so they're often forced to commit crimes again just to put food on their tables. All Square in Minneapolis is trying to change that - and their solution is a baller grilled cheese restaurant (square sandwiches) staffed 100% by people who have served time (and are now square with society).
The brainchild of founder and civil rights attorney, Emily Hunt Turner, All Square's motto is "Don't judge, just eat!", and from the looks of it on the busy Friday evening that I was there, that's exactly what everyone was doing. Born out of another successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017, Hunt Turner's hope is to "empower those historically excluded, while dismantling the divides that are isolating and destabilizing communities nationwide" (so, another idea that can work everywhere, like Urban Forage).
Located on a sunny, tree-lined corner of Minnehaha Avenue (next to Adams Park at 41st Street), All Square is a bright, neighborhood spot with folks seated outside enjoying the late sunlight of summer. The workers (here called "Fellows") were all super friendly, hard working, and looked happy to be there. It was so busy that I didn't really get a chance to talk much to Hunt Turner, as I'd dropped in unannounced, and she was all the way in the mix, hauling buckets of ice, putting up umbrellas outside, and generally spinning all the Friday night plates of a popular restaurant.
I did speak to one of the fellows, Natalie, who had done time while waiting for her case's appeal - which was eventually dropped. Her serving any time, however, still made it hard to get a job. She heard about All Square, came in and applied, and is now happily making a living - as well as her own signature sandwiches whenever there's a lull. She was super cool, and I was happy for her that there is a place like this ... happy for anyone who needs it that there is a place like this, actually.
A mirrored sign inside says: A Response - to widespread exclusion of those impacted by the justice system. A Brand - that embodies social sustainability, racial justice, and economic inclusion. A Solution - fueled by law, entrepreneurship, social capital, and baller grilled cheese. That sums it up pretty neatly.
And those grilled cheese ARE baller. I had the jerk one, which has shredded jerk chicken, guava jam, and cheese, of course. YUM. There are several sandwiches to choose from, and no one looked mad at any of them. All are served with greens, and you're gonna want to order fries, also of course.
There is an "Institute and Dream Lab" next door, where mental health and wellness services are offered on site. The All Square fellows can also attend classes on personal and professional development, civil rights, and things like social media, marketing, and making budgets ... all stuff that can lead to even better jobs. The goal is not just to get these employees a paycheck, and not just to reduce the chances they'll go back to jail, but to create new leaders.
The whole operation reminds me a bit of my friend Brother Wayne Kramer's excellent organization, Jail Guitar Doors. They give guitars to inmates so that they might have that awesome skill when they get out, creating new opportunities for them when they get out. Again, it's good people coming up with actual solutions to help our fellow citizens, and it's a beautiful thing.
You can help too. You can donate to their cause. You can attend the play Floyd's at The Guthrie Theater on July 26th (one night only!). It's a story about formerly incarcerated men and women who rebuild their lives in a sandwich shop, and all proceeds will go to All Square. You can volunteer. Your business can sponsor them. And you can go and get your own delicious grilled cheese any Wednesday through Sunday at All Square. Neon lights and Civil Rights! And Los Angeles ... We need this too! Every city does.
*Shout out to Michelle Larson for another great story tip! Keep 'em coming, Mpls!
4047 Minnehaha Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55406