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Grilled Cheese Restaurant Provides Second Chance

Emily Hunt Turner, left, and Roslynn Pedracine met when they were both young civil rights lawyers at H.U.D. Pedracine still practices law in the Twin Cities, serving as chair of All Square’s board, and Hunt Turner is working full-time with her institute to help people who have been incarcerated transition back into society near the top of the ladder.

Two days after All Square, a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant in the Longfellow neighborhood, opened its doors, founder Emily Hunt Turner was running around in circles. Downstairs with Board Chair Roslynn Pedracine was a reporter from Foodservice News and one of the kitchen staff who had cut his finger and couldn’t get it to stop bleeding. Upstairs was the beginning of the dinner rush and a camera crew from Kare 11 TV, along with a fully staffed kitchen of men who had served time and were now learning how to serve grilled cheese sandwiches filled with ingredients such as chopped pecans and apple slices or coleslaw and shredded pork. 

Dressed in jeans and an All Square logo’d T-shirt, hair piled on top of her head in messy bun, Hunt Turner was unflappable. Maybe because as a former immigration attorney for H.U.D. (Department of Housing and Urban Development) in Washington, D.C., this impending rush didn’t even begin to compare to the chaos she’s witnessed. 

As the website says: “All Square is a civil rights social enterprise centered on a craft grilled cheese restaurant and professional development institute. Our aim is to ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals have the financial support and social capital necessary for a bright and productive future.”

The object is to turn out leaders, not cooks. “We want to generate the city’s next leaders,” she says. “We’re not here to generate grilled cheese chefs.” The job puts “real money in their pockets,” but the opportunity is a shift from jobs to careers. 

There are two tracks, one of which focuses on legal, another on entrepreneurship. 

So why give up a law practice to open a restaurant in order to fund her version of social justice? Complicated question, simple answer: “I was sitting across from the community and I wanted to be part of it,” Hunt Turner explains. “I was frustrated not to have solutions.”

Along with her impressive board, Hunt Turner believes she has one solution to help 14 former incarcerated men develop leadership skills that will keep them “all square” with society. Her message is that most of us have done something that could have landed us behind bars (think driving under the influence), but we weren’t caught. Once you are in the system as an offender, it’s hard to find a job, a place to live or to vote. 

“I’m submerged in a different world from being a lawyer,” she says about her new endeavor. “I’m doing all the hands-on things (from mentoring to scrubbing floors). Law is touching paper, not people.”

Running an institute and a restaurant puts her squarely in the ex-cons’ corner. “This feels really real—sometimes too real,” she adds flashing her wide smile. 

Running a restaurant was a natural, she says because she’s always wanted to open a grilled cheese restaurant. “Restaurants are great connectors,” she says, and grilled cheese is the quintessential comfort food. It’s also symbolic, since the sandwiches are square, playing off the organization’s name, plus food costs are manageable. 

They had several restaurateurs mentor them, including Tracy Singleton of Birchwood Café and Heather Bray and Jodi Ayres, owners of the The Lowbrow.

“We’re still refining; learning on the fly,” Hunt Turner says. 

The menu is simple: 10 different versions of grilled cheese sandwiches, a daily soup and french fries.  

The search for a building, didn’t uncover a second-generation restaurant that “spoke to them.” The current building on Minnehaha Boulevard was a former retail space. It took around $250,000 to do the buildout. Ground-level is the small kitchen and dining room, plus a future community room that could also help with overflow from the tiny dining room, Pedracine says. Downstairs is still under construction, with a mostly finished space where the 14 members meet. 

The uniqueness of the mission behind the restaurant and lots of media attention has turned out crowds that line up outside the door. A front patio adds more tables and chairs, and stools line one side of the open kitchen.  Once the media attention wanes, the neighborhood should be able to support the restaurant, the two women say.  After all, as her T-shirt says: who can resist “guilt-free comfort food.” 

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