06 Nov 2018 • Rab Messina
This American restaurant is owned by an NGO that works with former inmates
In the United States, life after prison is often paved with a long line of social hurdles: from having employment and housing prospects decimated by their criminal records to even the stigma of dental damage given their lack of access to care, these barriers often leave formerly incarcerated people more vulnerable to both recidivism and the onslaught of mental health issues.
That’s where the work of NGOs such as All Square comes in. The name is derived from the notion that those who have paid their debts to society are square, and free to move forward. Given the reticence of many employers on hiring from the pool of more than 600,000 people who are released American prisons every year, the civil rights social enterprise has focused on providing an opportunity for Minneapolis-based former inmates: a restaurant and in-house professional institute also named All Square, aimed at employing and empowering them.
The name is also a reference to the shape of the spot’s signature dish: the craft grilled cheese sandwich. All Square needed to come up with a restaurant layout as attractive as the comfort-food favourite it serves. To do so, they recruited Syracuse-based firm Architecture Office, who went for a layout that would both frame and unify the interactions between the staff and the customers. ‘Our goal was to give All Square’s mission a physical presence by inserting a few everyday elements alongside the existing materials in the space,’ said Nicole McIntosh, one of the project’s design architect. Those elements include metal frames, mirrors and neon lighting within an uncluttered space featuring white and grey tones.
The square motif also makes it to the interior decisions: it is repeated at varying dimensions throughout the space – at the point of sale, at the bar, at the entrance – to mark planned and unplanned interactions.
And indeed, one of the most important appearances of the shape is in the inward-looking mirrors positioned around the perimeter of the restaurant. Their placement is not random, but instead emotionally strategic. ‘Each mirror reflects the same scene from a different perspective,’ explained McIntosh. ‘By doing this, the worker collapses with the visitor, connecting one with the other in the process.’