MINNEAPOLIS — Ameer Abdullah was a few bites in when he raved, "FIRE!"
You know, in that, "This is awesome," emoji kind of way, rather than, "This jerk chicken grilled cheese is too hot."
Onika Goodluck, a chef who created the sandwich during her time as a "fellow" with All Square, smiled with pride.
"Everybody loves my food. They're not just saying it because I'm here," Onika said. "It's my passion, so to hear people say they love it makes me want to go harder and keep doing what I'm doing."
All Square serves up lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and also offers brunch from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Proceeds, along with private donations, fund All Square's programs. The quaint brick-and-mortar billed by Architectural Digest as maintaining "Neon Lights and Civil Rights" is located at 4047 Minnehaha Ave.
Abdullah selected the jerk chicken offering out of several savory sandwich options before learning just how much of a difference-maker it is a couple of slices at a time.
He and teammates Anthony Harris, Eric Kendricks, Alexander Mattison and Stephen Weatherly joined Onika and current All Square fellows for a conversation that covered perpetual challenges faced by people who are looking to move past a criminal record.
The players, who are active on the Vikings Social Justice Committee, were able to hear testimonials from those who are moving past felonies and misdemeanors and learn more about the structured programs available through All Square.
For many fellows, All Square is the first place they've felt humanized instead of demonized. It's a place where someone is in their corner.
The nonprofit social enterprise's mission is "to ensure that those impacted by the criminal justice system have the support and opportunities they need not simply to subsist but, more importantly, to become our country's future leaders, business owners, legal practitioners and entrepreneurs."
Goals include responding to "widespread exclusion of individuals with a criminal record" through a multipronged approach that offers coursework and legal guidance, as well as counseling services through, its Institute and "Dream Lab" space that is adjacent to the open kitchen.
Fellows can work in the restaurant, helping gain economic stability, as they participate in the programs and begin learning entrepreneurial skills and ways to make their dreams come true.
Abdullah said he appreciated the opportunity to learn the process that many go through after making a mistake and the steps required during rehabilitation.
"A lot of times, we don't acknowledge and humanize each other after we go through traumatic experiences," Abdullah said. "Some people make mistakes at a young age, and it's very hard to wash that stain off your past a lot of times, but at the end of the day, those people have to continue to live, and that is part of the humanization factor.
"As people who haven't had a run-in with the legal justice system, maybe we should give them more of an opportunity," Abdullah added. "The first step is listening to them, understanding what happened to them."
The players listened intently to fellows, learning how initial plans or dreams were derailed by mistakes. They also heard inspiring comeback stories. Despair is diminishing, and new dreams are forming.
"I just learned so much. I feel like there's so much for everybody to learn," Kendricks said. "I feel like that's the whole point, getting the message out to the community. These are people that are discriminated against. We've seen it in the past, and it's something that needs to be changed.
"One of the ladies said it the best," Kendricks added. "She said, 'They don't give up on you.' They try to make it work."
Onika opened Daddy's Kitchen, which caters Caribbean-American comfort food, in honor of her father, Ronald Hardin, on Fathers' Day Weekend. She still works 20 hours a week at All Square, cooking lunch for the fellows on Mondays when the restaurant is closed but the institute is busy at work. She also orders supplies on Tuesdays, stocking up for the week.
"It's been everything, kind of what I needed," Onika said. "All Square kind of gave me the blueprint to get on my way, to not be stuck in the 'What am I going to do after I messed my life up?'
"Picking up the pieces, putting them back together, All Square has been instrumental in making sure I had what I need — not want, but need — to get to what my goal was, which was to start my own catering company, get through the training, which was a business course that we took for 24 weeks," Onika said. "Keeping a job, keeping a house, plus all of the little stuff that goes into being successful, All Square has been instrumental in helping me along the way."
As for that sandwich, it's All Square's top seller.
Onika drew inspiration from her Caribbean roots and thought, "Why not a jerk grilled cheese?"
"I didn't think it was going to be what it turned out to be, the number-one seller right now," Onika said. "It's been interesting, for sure."
The Vikings Social Justice Committee appointed a grant for $35,000 to All Square from a $250,000 allotment provided by the Wilf family ownership group of the Vikings.
Abdullah recently delivered a ceremonial check during a return visit.
The players appreciate All Square's mission and value its achievement. Several wished that a similar enterprise existed in their hometowns.
"All Square is [positively impacting people]," Abdullah said. "The things that they're doing, giving folks the opportunity to learn business traits to maybe open up a business for themselves, getting people housing when it's hard to get approved a lot of times when you have a felony on your record. I learned a lot more about how long it takes to expunge your record.
"All Square is creating an atmosphere that's not only giving people the physical tools to survive but also the mental tools to feel good about themselves and give to their children," Abdullah added.