A new grilled cheese shop hires -- and empowers -- people with a criminal record

Can a sandwich shop spur social change?

Can a sandwich shop spur social change? Universe Creative

Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cookies. Chips and salsa. Grilled cheese and reduced recidivism rates.

Okay, no, that last one isn't exactly part of our lexicon. At least, not yet.

Emily Hunt Turner thinks it could be.

For the last year, she's been working on a gourmet grilled cheese shop called All Square -- a fast-casual concept that takes its name from more than just the shape of its sandwiches.

Turner is a civil rights attorney who spent years working in prisoner reentry, fair housing, and segregation for the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). And the longer she was with HUD, the more she realized how broken the criminal justice system is.

Once you have a record, Turner explains, it’s largely “game over.” You can be denied access to housing or to jobs because you’ve been incarcerated; it’s often against the law for you to stay with friends and family members who live in public housing.

“I think the question I was facing was, ‘Whoa … they don’t get to realize this position that we promised them: that they’re square, that they’re in fact free to move forward -- that they can be a citizen again, really.’”

It's increasingly a problem given that the U.S. locks up way more people per capita than any other nation. So All Square offers a simple solution: employ those who have been incarcerated. And that's exactly what it will do when it opens in south Minneapolis next year.

A weird move from HUD to grilled cheese gourmand? Maybe. But Turner was increasingly frustrated with her inability to actually do anything while practicing law. “Great, I’m a lawyer, but I don’t have a solution," she remembers thinking. "It’s pretty much legal to deny people access to housing on the basis of having a record.” (Plus, she adds, there are only so many articles you can post to Facebook, so many outraged statuses you can make.) She wanted to do something that would let her leverage her privilege as a white lawyer in a tangible way.

All Square is a nonprofit, and its board of directors is composed of lawyers and activists, but also folks who have been formerly incarcerated. And there's an educational component at work here, too, thanks to a 13-month institute for former felons that offers not just a paid internship but professional development, personal wellness, and financial literacy training.

After raising $60,000 through Kickstarter last year, Turner's making the final financial push for the capital to get this thing off the ground. And she's doing it with flair, offering free grilled cheese for life to folks who make a one-time payment of $1,000.

The model has worked before; Northbound Smokehouse and Brewpub raised a ton of cash with a similar "free-beer-for-life" offering a few years back. And it looks like it'll work for All Square, too -- after launching last week, 13 of 100 available GCFL memberships are already spoken for. Oh, and yesterday, the Minneapolis Foundation announced that it would grant All Square $50,000 to fund general operations.

Yes, Turner is aware that gooey cheese is kind of an out-there solution.

“But it’s a local solution, and it’s a response to what’s happening,” Turner says. “It brings people to it. At the end of the day, people can get really pissed about a lot of things. But grilled cheese is a badass, neutral thing. I don’t care what your identity is, what side of the aisle you’re on … we all really love grilled cheese.”

Look for All Square at 4047 Minnehaha Ave. in early 2018.