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A Nonprofit Grilled Cheese Restaurant with a Mission

Emily Turner ’07

Turner has many talents but cooking is not one of them. That hasn’t deterred her from her latest venture, a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant on a mission to empower people who have criminal records.

Portrait of Emily Turner

Emily Turner has many talents. She’s an architect, public policy expert, and lawyer with a passion for writing and photography who loves playing and coaching hockey. Surprisingly, her newest venture is built on a skill that’s not among her strengths: cooking. For the past year, Turner’s energies have been directed toward the goal of opening a nonprofit gourmet grilled cheese restaurant in Minneapolis. But it’s not just about food. The restaurant, called All Square, is also an institute with a mighty mission: It aims to employ and empower people with criminal records, offering them a steppingstone for reintegration into the workforce and, she hopes, a better future.

Although it may seem unrelated, the idea for the restaurant has its foundation in Turner’s experience as a School of Architecture student. “Architecture, and housing in particular, is the common thread that ties together the things I’ve done in the past 15 years,” says Turner, who came to Syracuse from the small town of Wahpeton, North Dakota. “I can sincerely say choosing Syracuse was the best decision I ever made.”

As graduation neared, though, Turner realized she wanted to expand beyond the architecture field. “I got very interested in how cities work and how housing works in urban quarters,” says Turner, who then earned a master’s degree in public policy at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “During that time I started to understand the trends of housing displacement and housing discrimination, which generated my interest in the law.”

After earning a law degree at Loyola University New Orleans, she spent five years as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis, working on issues of prisoner reentry, housing discrimination, and housing segregation. “I discovered that the intersection of housing and having a record was extremely prevalent, and those who have an encumbered past find it virtually impossible to secure housing,” says Turner, who felt helpless to make a difference for the people affected by the injustices she witnessed. “I thought, wow, this is such an issue and there’s so little being done. I could do this for the rest of my career and feel like I’ve virtually done nothing.”

What if I could create, with a team of people I really trust, a business and a brand that is actually part of the solution?... I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Enter the idea for the restaurant, which is being designed by Syracuse architecture faculty Jonathan Louie ’07 and Nicole McIntosh, and is due to open in early fall 2017. “I do not excel in the kitchen, but I make a mean grilled cheese,” says Turner, who left her HUD position to devote herself to All Square ( ). “I had cooked for my friends one evening and they joked that I should open a restaurant. And maybe a month or two after that I was with my fiancée and I said, ‘You know, what if…?’ What if I could create, with a team of people I really trust, a business and a brand that is actually part of the solution? It was a very empowering moment. It was also a very daunting moment. I’ve been obsessed ever since.”

The name All Square speaks both to the shape of the sandwiches that will be served there and, more significantly, to the concept of having a clean slate after paying one’s debt to society. Turner sees the restaurant—and the institute—as a way to offer reparations for those who have been excluded and as the first aspect of a larger network of support services, including housing, mental health and wellness, and professional development. “All Square is a response to recidivism and, hopefully, a way to mitigate it,” she says. “So there’s quite an adventure happening.” 

Amy Speach

This story was published on .

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