Food by VICE

This Formerly Incarcerated Chef Is Making Healthier Ramen for Prison Commissaries

"God came to me and said, 'I want you to do this ramen.'”

by Lauren Rothman
Aug 30 2018, 4:19pm

Photos courtesy of Ron Freeman

In 1995, Ron Freeman operated a hot dog cart, slinging weiners to patrons of a strip club located in the Gardena neighborhood southwest of Los Angeles. On the club’s slow days, he supplemented his income by parking the cart outside a nearby housing complex and feeding residents who earned their living by selling crack cocaine. One afternoon, during a sudden bust by area police, just over one gram of crack landed in Freeman’s cart’s trash can, he says, discarded by a well-known gang member who had patronized the cart. Freeman didn’t snitch and ended up in a nearby prison, where, as a man with discerning taste in food, he rejected the facility’s often-inedible cafeteria meals and usually headed to its commissary, where inmates can purchase packaged foods, instead. There, he selected the same item, time and again: a packet of instant ramen.

Ramen is a big deal within the prison system. As Freeman—now 54 and known as “Chef Ron”—explains, prison food is usually so poor that many inmates opt to purchase ramen instead, thereby obtaining a hot meal, and a measure of comfort. They often customize their soups, loading them with other commissary items including packaged chips and lunch meats. And apart from satisfying hunger, ramen packets also serve as currency within a prison system that banned cigarettes back in 2014.

Almost as ubiquitous in these facilities as plastic packets of dried noodles are chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease, illnesses that affect the incarcerated at significantly higher rates than they do the general population. Freeman, who went on to found a line of frozen gumbos after his release in 1998, sees a connection between prisons’ terrible food—both the prepared meals served in the cafeterias and the packaged goods sold in the commissaries—and the health problems he witnessed among so many of his peers. Loaded with poor-quality fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and sky-high amounts of sodium, prison food almost certainly contributes to the low levels of health that plague inmates.

For Freeman, the problem was personal. Now a free man, that salty taste of commissary ramen remains with him—and he’s setting out to change the menu. Along with his business partner Dave Taylor, he’s developing a line of low-sodium instant ramen in diverse flavors—seafood gumbo, chicken taco—that he plans to market to West Coast prison commissaries to provide a healthier option for inmates. We spoke with Freeman about the divine command he received telling him to make healthier gumbo, and how he hopes to use the brand as a way to inspire the formerly incarcerated.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Ron. Why is ramen so popular in prison? What was your experience with it on the inside?
Ron Freeman: In the free world, people judge your status by the vehicle you drive, or the clothes you wear, or the neighborhood you live in. In prison, it’s all about your commissary. You know the guy that’s rollin’, he’s got money on the streets, he’s got it goin’ on, by his commissary. You know what a guy was about based on what he had in his locker, or under his bed or whatever—you knew he had it goin’ on with ramen.

Six or seven days out of the week, the food in prison, every meal is horrible. You get bologna, it looks green; you can’t even make a sandwich with that stuff. The only time that I would go to commissary was on the night that they had baked chicken. But other than that, I ate ramen noodles. You get pretty creative with them, because you’re kind of making a miniature casserole. You take your noodles, you add in some beef jerky for a protein, you can add tuna, all kinds of stuff, so it’s a pretty big deal.

Ramen actually is a product that when you’re in prison, it’s the only thing that kinda gives you some comfort—you’re not hungry, you can be creative in how you make it, and stuff like that.

How did the idea for starting your own ramen line come about?
When I got out of prison, I had to think about my life. What was I gonna do now? I got a prison record now. And I’ve got a family; I had two small children, I was married. I was like, “What am I gonna do for my family? How can I stay out of prison, and how can I do something that’s gonna keep me on point?”

I ended up opening an internet cafe. Downstairs there was a restaurant, so we were thinking, this’ll be great, people can go right downstairs, eat their food, and come back up and play these video games. I start specializing in Louisiana-type food and gumbo. We were open for a few years, and then I decided, I’m gonna try to take this thing to the next level, so I contacted some grocery stores, and I started carrying it into some grocery stores.

It did well, but it didn’t give me the satisfaction I wanted financially or socially, because basically it was just kinda labeled black food, black-owned business, and black grocery stores; I didn’t want to serve just black people. I wanted to serve everybody.

I just felt like I could do better. And that’s when the whole ramen thing started to come up.

So how did you start the development process?
I tell people that God came to me and said, “I want you to do this ramen.”

I’m a prayerful person. I’m not a fanatic, but I believe in God, and I believe he has a purpose. So, me and my son, we start falling on hard times. The restaurant was doing OK, but it wasn’t bringing in a lot of money. So sometimes we were forced to eat ramen. I remember it was either in a dream, or I just woke up and knew, that I gotta go downstairs and I gotta try the gumbo on top of the noodles. Because I heard in my own heart that God had told me, “You know what, I want you to make these gumbo-flavored noodles.”

"The ramen, it has so much salt. So I’m thinking, first of all, I’m not gonna make ‘em salty like that, I’m gonna give them more flavor. And second, I’m gonna be able to use this to go back into the prisons and maybe talk to the guys."

So I went down and I got some of my gumbo sauce, poured it on top of some ramen noodles without the seasoning packet on it, and tasted it—and it was absolutely delicious. Basically all I did was replace the rice, which you serve with gumbo, with ramen.

The first thing that came to mind for me was, I’ve always seen three flavors, they’ve always had the same ones since I was a kid: chicken, shrimp, and beef-flavored ramen. That’s all they ever had. And I’m like wow, you know what would be cool, is if we change it. This would be great, to do some different-flavored ramen.

I was already doing selling my frozen gumbo in the grocery stores, so I contacted my graphic designer, and I said, “Here’s a picture of some ramen, I want you to do a mockup of what it would look like if we put ‘gumbo flavor’ on there, and put a big picture of some gumbo on there. To make it real. I made a sheet to try to help it come to life in my mind.

One day, I went to talk to the grocery store buyer about another product I was gonna bring to the table, I was gonna bring some collard greens to the table. And the mockup that we did happened to slip out of my bag, and he saw it, and he said, “What is that?” And I said, “Well, I’m thinking about doing these ramen noodles, but it’s pretty ridiculous to even think that I could do something like that.” And he said, “Ron, I’m gonna tell you something. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. If you can get develop that, I guarantee it’s gonna be a slam dunk. I’m waiting for ramen to come out in different flavors, I’m tired of buying the same stuff.”

But I thought of something. I was like, “Maybe I can do this and help other people at the same time.” The ramen, it has so much salt. So I’m thinking, first of all, I’m not gonna make ‘em salty like that, I’m gonna give them more flavor. And second, I’m gonna be able to use this to go back into the prisons and maybe talk to the guys.

"The first time I actually seen the real samples of my stuff, I think I cried like a baby for like ten minutes. Because it was for real. I could actually open up a pack of noodles, and eat them with the flavors that I created."

Instead of trying to sell it in grocery stores and all that, I wanted to specifically sell to prisons. I wanted to go in there, because I knew a lot of guys that were having high blood pressure, hypertension; a lot of issues with their health. So I said, let me work on developing something that’s healthier and more flavorful. So I started doing my research, and I found a company that had a factory overseas in China that said they would work with me, help me develop the flavors, help me develop everything as far as making the ramen.

I didn’t have the money to get the samples done, so my girlfriend gave me $1,500 to get the first packages done. And when I got the packages, the first time I actually seen the real samples of my stuff, I think I cried like a baby for like ten minutes. Because it was for real. I could actually open up a pack of noodles, and eat them with the flavors that I created. It was just a moment.

Here in Southern California, we have a lot of Mexican people who make authentic Mexican food. The Chinese look at the Nissin Foods, the Maruchan noodles, as, like, how Mexicans would look at Taco Bell. You know what I mean? It’s just crap to them. It’s like how a Taco Bell taco doesn’t come close to one made in a Mexican taco truck, it’s just totally different. The ramen that we’re making, it’s high-end, gourmet, top-of-the-line ramen.

The other thing that I wanted to make sure is that there are really bold flavors that hit your palate. When you taste our ramen, you don’t taste a lot of salt, OK? You’ll taste the bell pepper, the celery, the onion, the filé for the gumbo one, you’ll taste the chile in the taco flavor. I try to get as close to the recipe as possible. Yes, it costs us a little bit more money, but at the end of the day that’s what I wanted.

We got the sodium down to 15 percent [of the daily recommended amount], compared to Nissin Foods’ 37 percent. Here’s the difference: theirs is based on two servings. I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever bought a pack of ramen, you eat the whole thing yourself. You don’t split it. So it’s actually double. So if it’s 37, you’re talking 70-something percent sodium. You eat that whole thing. Ours is based on one serving, so we know one person’s gonna eat that pack. It’s a deceptive labeling that they’re doing, you know. They know no one’s gonna split a pack of ramen.

How do you go about supplying the correctional facilities?
My partner that’s doing this with me, I had him approach the commissaries with our mockup artwork. I said, “Look, Dave, talk to them and see if they would even buy it. I don’t even want to do this if they’re absolutely not gonna try to buy it.” He called me back and was like, “Ron. It’s a go. Get ‘em done, get ‘em developed, I can sell ‘em.” I said, “Are you serious?” He said, “Yeah, full steam ahead.”

So that’s when I started focusing on developing the flavors. That plays a big part in succeeding, because in prison, you have politics in there. If I do only African-American flavors, they’ll be the only ones buying it. But because there’s a lot of brown and black people in prison, I decided to try and do Latino flavors along with one of our own flavors, and I also did a flavor for the Muslim population in there, because that’s pretty rampant in there as well. That’s how we did our lamb soup, because they don’t eat beef or pork.

The product is being manufactured, in China, as we speak. It will be here in this country in the last week of September and it should be in the actual prisons by mid-October.

Apart from the nutritional content, what kind of impact do you hope the ramen will have?
This will give me the opportunity to show guys that have gone through what I’ve gone through, and that look like me, that maybe sound like me, that you don’t have to get out and sell dope. Those aren’t the only successful entrepreneurs in the world. You could do something else besides that. And it’s pretty much the same process; you buy something wholesale, you reprocess it, and you find a clientele. It’s the same thing you do with drugs, it’s just not illegal.

A lot of these guys don’t know that. They think that because they see the cars, and the women, and the clothes and all that, that that’s the only way you can make it—but it’s not. I wanna do it through food. I wanna show guys who get out of prison, get you a small food truck, or even sell food from your house for a while, if you have to. Do barbecue, or do something. You don’t have to get out and sell dope. Sell food to the drug dealers; they got money! Sell ‘em some food all day, you’re gonna have two or three hundred bucks in your pocket that’s clear and free, and you won’t be back in prison.

Our hashtag is #hireyourself. I wanna put in their minds that they don’t have to give up. I wanna get into the prisons and push guys, spark an idea in their minds that you know what, that dude, I saw him the other day and he came from LA, and he came to the prison and I heard what he said, and I’ma start a business when I get out of jail. That’s all I want. Even if it’s one person who doesn’t go to prison because of me, I’m good, I did my job.

Thanks for speaking with us, Ron.