All Square is a craft grilled cheese restaurant and professional institute that breaks down barriers for those with a criminal record.
A criminal record can be a barrier to employment, housing, benefits, and voting. With barriers to employment and housing, there is a high rate of recidivism. One study across 30 states found that 67.8% of released prisoners were rearrested within three years of release.
Recidivism is a large problem impacting millions of people, including the loved ones of those with criminal records. Nearly one-third of American adults have been arrested by age 23. Arrests fall disproportionately on men of color. One out of every 106 white men is behind bars. Compare that to one in every 36 Hispanic men and one in every 15 African American men. And, it’s not just men who have criminal records. In the ten-year period from 1997 to 2007, the number of women in prison increased by 832%.
The volume of cases in the criminal justice system overwhelms the courts. Defendants are pressured to accept a plea deal for probation or early parole. Many who accept these deals do not realize the full consequences of their future employment and housing options.
Emily Hunt Turner is doing something about this. Emily is an architect, a civil rights attorney, and more recently the founder of All Square. All Square is a craft grilled cheese restaurant and training institute for those with a criminal record. They plan on opening their restaurant this spring. Their name is a play on words, representing those who have paid their debts to society are “all square” and free to move forward unencumbered.
When opened, All Square will be a self-sustaining social enterprise. Profit from the restaurant will fuel the organization. As a non-profit, they will augment their professional institute with grants and individual donations.
The Moments that Shaped Emily’s Mission
Emily grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Things weren’t always easy. Her mother raised her as a single parent. She says that “as a gay woman from rural North Dakota, from a family who has never known financial stability, I have seen and experienced adversity.” Still, she describes her early life as “the most incredibly happy childhood. I was a very happy kid.” Emily describes her mother as “the most inclusive human I’ve ever known. She was so eccentric in her dress and her manners. She was quite a force and a vision.”
When Emily grew up, studied Architecture at Syracuse University. She became interested in issues surrounding housing. She worked on a documentary film, The Atlanta Way that describes gentrification in Atlanta after the 1996 Olympics. “I learned about some of the troubling practices that took place in the name of clearing housing for athletes. I was beyond troubled. It was shocking to me that this sort of thing could actually happen.”
“What came out of that was, unexpectedly, a passion for housing discrimination and displacement,” Emily explains. Seeing her passion, a professor encouraged Emily to study law. “Keep in mind, Emily says, “this was my seventh year in college.” Nonetheless, Emily remarks “This led to my law degree and my focus on contemporary housing discrimination through zoning, land-use, lending algorithms, and low-income housing tax credits.”
Emily worked as an attorney for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for nearly five years. “I not only ran into widespread housing discrimination in lending, zoning, and land-use, but I also saw it day-in and day-out in tenant selection policies.” Emily witnessed how those with criminal records are excluded from both public and private housing.
Eventually, Emily realized that she could not change the outcomes from people with criminal records from inside of HUD. “I had no legal remedies for this exclusion. It is basically legal to exclude those with records from housing.”
Emily came up with a business plan. Around a year earlier, she had thought about a grilled cheese restaurant. At the time, she had laughed off the idea. However, she thought, “I want to be part of the solution.” Emily’s solution was to create employment for people with criminal records through a grilled cheese restaurant. She also wanted to create a powerful brand. She landed on the name All Square.
Advice that Shaped her Solution
Before Emily went further, she shared her idea with several people. First, checked in with two groups of people – the formerly incarcerated and experts in barriers to employment. Both groups agreed that creating a restaurant with employment opportunities was a promising idea. However, they added an extra element. They encouraged Emily to go further by creating an institute that would look at the holistic needs of the person, to prepare them to be successful in the work world.
Emily found Edwins in Cleveland, a restaurant and institution employing people with criminal records. She reached out to the owners who met with her and encouraged her. Edwins is a fine-dining restaurant with high overhead. They encouraged her to pursue her fast-casual restaurant idea.
Emily checked in with other restaurateurs she knew. They encouraged her to keep the menu simple to avoid high food costs and labor costs. They also told her, if she was going to pursue this idea, she could not do this part-time while still working at HUD. With this input and the addition of the professional institute, All Square was an idea whose time had come.
Two months after those conversations, Emily resigned from her job at HUD. The next day, she launched a Kickstarter campaign for All Square. This campaign included a six-city tour across the country. The goal was to raise $50,000. They exceeded their goal, raising $60,000.
Coming off of the success of the Kickstarter campaign, All Square had momentum. However, not everything has gone smoothly. Emily suffered a major personal setback. Her mother, who was such a large figure in her life, passed away only three months after the Kickstarter campaign. “This loss was both grave and unexpected,” Emily says. “The emotional hardship has been devastating; so difficult.” Emily feels lucky to have friends and a fiancé to see her through. “Self-care is critical,” she explained. “I’m still working on getting that piece right.”
Emily has continued to struggle with the business aspects of All Square. Despite the fact that All Square has raised over $140,000 in capital in the last 16 months, she has struggled to access business loans. “I think we’re now there with securing our construction loan, but wow, has it been difficult,” she says.
Emily also had a steep learning curve. “I didn’t know the first thing about starting a business when I started this 16 months ago,” she explains. “There are thousands of things I’ve learned since starting: How to properly structure a nonprofit; understanding social impact investing; understanding the benefits of a hybrid structure; understanding capital markets,” and more. However, she says “I feel like I now have a very strong business foundation.”
Emily says that she is grateful for “the humans that have come into my life and the time/energy those that are already in my life have freely given. It’s been just incredible.”
She has a laser focus on just one goal. “Our focus is on our first location on Minnehaha Avenue. Period,” she laughs.”
Emily’s Advice to Aspiring Social Entrepreneurs
Emily’s advice to aspiring social entrepreneurs comes from a saying on a neckless she wears. “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” But “done” requires more than talk. It also requires collaborating with others, even those with whom you may not initially agree. “Rather than posting articles condemning or condoning certain viewpoints, which I, of course, used to do constantly, find a human in your life with whom you disagree on the subject matter, and see if there’s any space for common ground, despite your differences.”
All Square is slated to open in late Spring of 2018.
Social Entrepreneurship Quotes from Emily Hunt Turner
Social Entrepreneurship Resources:
- All Square: https://www.allsquarempls.com
- All Square on Instagram: https://instagram.com/allsquarempls
- All Square on Facebook: https://facebook.com/allsquarempls
- All Square on Twitter: https://twitter.com/allsquarempls
- Film: The Atlanta Way: A Documentary Film on Gentrification: http://www.theatlantaway.com/
- Book: Crazy Good Advice: 10 Lessons Learned from 150 Leading Social Entrepreneurs: https://tonyloyd.com/book