These Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwiches Are Actually Changing People’s Lives

At All Square, a non-profit, fast-casual grilled cheese restaurant owned by entrepreneur and social justice advocate Emily Turner, people literally “break bread” together. Food—especially hot food—tends to unite people through shared enjoyment, and Emily understands that. As you bite into a gourmet molten cheese sandwich, you feel connected to those around you, to those who crafted the delectable meal you’re consuming, and to the hardworking dairy farmers who produced the main ingredient.

Emily has a dual mission, and her restaurant’s name encapsulates that dual purpose perfectly. All Square refers to the shape of the grilled cheese sandwiches it sells, which are a testament to Emily’s desire to bring the community together through serving comfort food. But All Square is also an ode to Emily’s commitment to employing formerly incarcerated individuals. In Emily’s view, although these people have criminal records, they are “all square” in the community because they’ve paid their debt to society.

Prior to launching All Square, Emily received a donation for a year’s worth of cheese from Crystal Farms, a national company with offices in the area, which drastically offset food costs for the restaurant’s launch. This generosity is just one example of the power dairy farmers can have in connecting the wider community.

grilled cheese and social justice

What is it like working for All Square?

All Square is packed for hours throughout my visit. While listening in on conversations at surrounding tables, I realize just how enthusiastic people are about the food, and especially the cheese. Grilled cheese really does hit the spot for people of all ages and demographic backgrounds. More than that, it seems to inspire a true sense of connection among customers.

The mood is light and jovial from front to back and each of the restaurant’s employees, or “fellows” as Emily calls them, readily volunteers a favorite sandwich. In fact, the fellows helped her name many of the menu items.

A few people mention the savory Jerk Chicken, a sandwich starring rotisserie chicken, guava jam, and Jamaican sauce all tied together with a mix of scrumptious Swiss and Provolone, as a surefire standout. Also popular is the Basil Pesto, featuring shredded mozzarella and fontina, fresh basil, pesto, and a sweet pepper jelly for dipping. Yet another restaurant favorite is the Four-Cheese, made from a blend of asiago, parmesan, cracked pepper, and sharp cheddar cheeses that satisfies deeply. What’s clear from speaking to staffers and customers alike is that the cheese is the main draw here.

Through the open kitchen, I spot something rare—a crew of workers that seems to be genuinely enjoying their work. One employee, Tomas, says he’s excited to wake up in the morning and go to work, where he mans the grill, because he knows that he brings so much enjoyment to customers throughout his day.

Another employee, Precious, who heard about the job at All Square from her probation officer, says there’s a bond between the fellows because of their shared history and their shared love of cheese. “We make a really good team,” she beams.

Emily Turner

Meet Emily Turner, the mastermind behind this grilled cheese movement

Emily tells me that she chose grilled cheese because it’s such a joyful food. Who isn’t happy when they’re eating grilled cheese? It has a playful element that automatically softens a topic as serious as incarceration. Emily thinks of the sandwiches she serves at All Square as “skepticism diffusers.” After all, how could you not be more open-minded while eating a wonderfully gooey cheese sandwich?

As an attorney, Emily witnessed firsthand how formerly incarcerated people face obstacle after obstacle while attempting to re-enter society. She spent years in New Orleans working for the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) on issues related to prisoner reentry, namely housing and employment segregation and exclusion.

Emily left the legal field to collaborate with other community leaders on her board and to do what she thought would create the most concrete good. “I want to be part of the solution instead of just talking about it,” she says. By launching a restaurant and affiliated institute that employs and educates formerly incarcerated people, she provides them with the tools they need to not just survive but thrive in the long run.

All Square staff

How does All Square connect with the local community?

Emily makes an effort to source ingredients from local mom and pop brands, automatically enhancing the sense of community at All Square. And she is the first to recognize that she’s not doing all of the heavy lifting on her own. Emily genuinely appreciates the hard work of the dairy farmers who produce the cheese she serves at All Square. She also works closely with her board of directors to structure the restaurant and institute.

Through cheese, Emily truly hopes to make a difference. As Emily puts it, “Being nourished is one way to make people feel good, and eating a meal with someone is a good way to connect with them.” The driving force behind All Square is Emily’s hope that one day all individuals will be judged on their merits rather than their mistakes. This applies not only to All Square’s fellows, but to everyone in the community at large.

Emily very mindfully built her restaurant as a setting that’s ripe for listening to others’ stories. When people listen, she says, they empathize. Emily hopes that her restaurant serves as an outlet for people to be vulnerable and to engage in meaningful conversations so they can help each other heal. She also hopes that she can one day host expungement clinics with lawyers in her community-centric space.

Roslynn Pedracine, an attorney and investigator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development – Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, serves as the chair of All Square’s board of directors. By day, Roslynn ensures that civil rights and anti-discrimination laws are being followed. By night, she guides All Square in its goal of proactively doing good in the lives of people she sees every day.

Emily Hunt Turner and Roslynn L. Pedracine

How do you combine grilled cheese and social justice?

All Square is designed to facilitate bonding within the community—between the friends and family members who patronize her restaurant, the fellows who work there, and the devoted dairy farmers who make the cheese at the heart of her sandwiches. She aims to connect people through sharing a type of food that is appreciated across cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. All Square is also meant to be a meeting room where larger community events can be held.

While hiring formerly incarcerated individuals isn’t an uncommon practice in the food industry, Emily took things a step further by building an institute in the space beneath All Square, where the company’s fellows can gather to learn about entrepreneurship and law. Ultimately, Emily’s goal is to arm her fellows with the skills they need to transition out of working in a kitchen—to ensure that they have more choices available to them through working at her company. Emily wants people with records to be able to find housing and employment, but she also wants them to dream bigger. She wants to help them feel truly successful after rejoining society.

All Square

What’s next for All Square?

The truth is that we’re nicer to each other when we’re seated at the same table, enjoying the same delicious food.

According to Emily, her role in Minneapolis at the moment is to challenge existing narratives and practices by bringing people together to enjoy food and to engage in meaningful dialogues while eating her delicious sandwiches. These sandwiches represent the community—the dairy farmers who make the cheese, the All Square fellows who craft them, and the customers who eat them. 

Emily hopes that the conversations taking place at her restaurant will feed the community, literally and metaphorically, and inspire people to take action. All Square is founded on a simple recipe—for mouthwatering grilled cheese sandwiches, and a big change in the community. Eventually, Emily’s goal is to make this enterprise a nationally viable business model.

To see more inspiring stories from the people who are connecting you with the dairy on your plate, head to undeniably Thought Catalog Logo Mark