See more of the story

Emily Hunt Turner went to law school to fight injustice and stand up for those who didn't have a voice.

But when the former U.S. Housing and Urban Development attorney watched helplessly as an older, lower-income Minneapolis couple with a sterling rental record were legally evicted from their home after a 40-year-old criminal conviction surfaced, she decided to provide help and support in a new way.

Turner, 34, quit her job and plans this spring to open a nonprofit restaurant in south Minneapolis that will offer career training and professional development for those exiting the criminal justice system.

"If we are still punishing someone for a 40-year-old mistake, what does someone just leaving prison face?" she said.

The restaurant will specialize in the ultimate comfort food: grilled cheese sandwiches, done gourmet-style.

The name of the restaurant, All Square, at 4047 Minnehaha Av. in the Longfellow neighborhood, is a reference both to the squared-off sandwich and the idea that once you've done your time and paid your debt to society, you should be all square.

Two grants totaling $60,000 from the Minneapolis Foundation will help the fledgling nonprofit get on its feet, along with another $60,000 raised on Kickstarter, a crowdsourcing website.

All Square also is selling $1,000 memberships to the "Grilled Cheese For Life" club in hopes of raising an additional $100,000. So far, it has sold about one-quarter of the 100 being offered.

"They have lot of social capital to support this idea. That's pretty impressive," said Jo-Anne Stately, the Minneapolis Foundation's director of impact strategy for economic vitality. "They used crowdsource funding to get their legs. That's phenomenal.

"The thing that stands out is the support that comes from the neighborhood in wanting it there."

Turner said such job-training programs are more in demand than ever and that similar nonprofit restaurants are popping up in cities across the country in such places as Cleveland and San Francisco.

Battling the stigma

As many as one in three Americans have some type of criminal record, according to the national nonprofit Sentencing Project. With easy access to electronic criminal records, employers, landlords and bankers can uncover a conviction that can make it nearly impossible for an ex-offender to find housing or work or take out a loan. The lifelong stigma and de facto social punishment can turn even misdemeanors into life sentences, Turner said.

"It's completely legitimate to exclude people with records. Even an arrest that doesn't result in conviction can result in eviction," she said. "Once you have a record, it makes it difficult to secure public or private housing. It's pretty obvious to me why recidivism rates are so high."

To make sure All Square is a true grass-roots effort, Turner has stacked her board with community members who know the struggle firsthand. Many have family members and friends with convictions, and some have records themselves.

Turner said all participants in the job training and professional development program at the restaurant will be paid a living wage. The plan is to have about 30 in the program at any time. The nonprofit will seek out applicants who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

"As a black man, you have to be creative to survive the world in general," said Tommy Franklin, a filmmaker, producer and podcaster who sits on the All Square board.

Franklin said he found it tough to work as a youth due to a felony conviction, so he moved to France, Norway and Tanzania for a few years to find work and build his résumé. Most people don't have that kind of opportunity, and Franklin said he's eager to create more such opportunities in Minnesota.

Real-world skills

The restaurant training concept hasn't always worked. The Daily Diner, an eatery and training program in St. Paul run by the Union Gospel Mission, closed in 2015 after disappointing results.

"For us, it was an idea ahead of its time. We struggled," said Brian Molohon, Union Gospel's director of development.

Molohon said they should have taken a simpler approach. "We also tried to be open too long for breakfast, lunch and dinner," he said. "And we went out and bought a lot of brand-new stuff. I think we went over the top."

Turner believes All Square will be a welcome addition to the Minnehaha Avenue area, with its small vintage boutiques and reuse shops. The restaurant will be fast-casual and offer beer and wine, with most meals costing from $12 to $20. She said neighbors are stopping to peek inside and ask when it will open.

The restaurant will serve a number of variations on the classic grilled cheese sandwich, garnished with ingredients like Sriracha sauce, pickled jalapeños, caramelized onions and creamy Brie. Chef Sarah Master helped create the menu. There will be seating on the front sidewalk and back patio.

Despite his experience with the Daily Diner, Molohon thinks the concept can succeed and that the grilled cheese menu at All Square sounds promising.

"I am a big believer in social enterprise," he said. "It offers practical life skills and real-world business skills you can only learn in that setting."

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804