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Meet Inglewood gumbo king Ron Freeman

As a long term Inglewood resident, I spent many lunches over at Pride Plaza (Priaire Ave near Arbor Vitae) having gumbo at the Gumbo Grille.  It has since closed, but from this article in the Wave, I see why.Chef Ron Freeman sees gumbo dream in the frozen aisleBy Olu Alemoru, Staff WriterLos Angeles Wave

INGLEWOOD — It’s probably something you don’t see everyday: a Black man in a supermarket hugging a crate of frozen food with tears streaming down his face.

In fact, that image might have been a nightmare scenario if it had been videotaped out of context and broadcast as the lead on the evening TV news.

However, in the case of chef and business entrepreneur Ron Freeman, it was only tears of joy because he had achieved his dream of getting his late grandmother’s gumbo onto supermarket shelves for the first time.

Freeman is the brains behind Mama Pat’s Foods, LLC, which makes three varieties of Mama Pat’s Gumbo Bowl. It is now sold in the freezer section of Superior Grocers, one of the largest independently owned chains in Southern California and at FoodMax, a northern Californian grocery chain with 247 stores.

And what makes it even more remarkable is that Freeman accomplished it without any major investment. Instead, he relied on a team that includes his chief financial partner Le Kisha Moore, a good friend Glenn Booth — who used his retirement savings to help keep Freeman afloat in the three-year production process — and filmmaker and marketer Regina Shields-Hailey, who increased the Mama Pat’s Facebook fan page from three to nearly 3,200 likes in two months.

“I got the call in January saying that the packets were in the store [at the Superior Grocers on Imperial and Crenshaw Boulevards] and went straight down there,” recalled Freeman. “I couldn’t find them at first, but when I saw it, that did it for me. I was crying and fell on top of it. People were asking me if I was okay. But I was remembering all the nights of sleeping in my truck, of not having any money and people saying you can’t do it, it’s not gonna work.”

However, Freeman, who used to operate the Gumbo Grill restaurant near the Hollywood Park racetrack, is now crying all the way to the bank after selling his first order of 5,000 Gumbo Bowls.

For the record, Mama Pat was Patricia Darby, who perfected her recipes in a small diner in the 1950’s and would attract a line of customers when she served her gumbo on Fridays. Ten years later, she closed the diner to work as lead cook for the Los Angeles Unified School District. However, Freeman kept the tradition going by using her recipe to make gumbo for his restaurant customers.

“The [Gumbo Grill] was doing well,” Freeman continued. “We were selling 1,500 bowls a month, but people living in the suburbs or outside Inglewood weren’t going to drive here to get a bowl of gumbo. So instead of me putting out a million flyers, I decided I had to get it to them. Closing the restaurant was the hardest thing I’ve done. That was my baby; but I couldn’t serve two gods.”

The next thing Freeman did was work the phones and call grocery store buyers. However, the first eight turned him down. Then, the situation changed.

“I get this call and I don’t recognize the number, so I don’t answer it,” he added. “It keeps ringing; but I think it’s one of my kids asking for money. I finally answered it and it turns out to be the guy from Superior Markets saying they want to try the gumbo.

“So they set up an appointment and I leave a bowl, which he has for lunch at noon. Half an hour he calls me back and says we want it and give me an order of 625 cases.”

Nevertheless, it wasn’t smooth sailing after that. Superior Grocers insisted that Freeman submit the gumbo to the United States Department Agriculture (USDA) for the certification required for the USDA product seal.

After some more online research, Freeman found a food manufacturer in Vernon, who would normally charge $50,000 to take on a client. However, the owner who was from Louisiana waived $45,000 of it.

“Initially, even he was skeptical,” Freeman said. “He told me that he’d been in business for 40 years and it couldn’t be done because there are too many components in it and it would be too expensive to get it to the shelves. The route of the dish, called the roux, has to be slowly cooked over a low heat and you have to be careful not to burn it or you have to start over. So, if you’re gonna make huge batches of the stuff, you have to overcome that problem. I can’t tell our secret; but we changed the game. We don’t jump over that step, we just do it in a different way.”

Born in Phoenix, but raised in Inglewood, Freeman developed an early love of business. He comes from a family of fine cooks and learned the recipes of his elders. He attended Crozier, Inglewood and Fairfax High Schools before a short spell at South West College.

With Mama Pat’s up and running, he is not only salivating at the prospect of taking a big bite out of the trillion dollar frozen food market, but fancies himself as the Berry Gordy of the supermarket world.

There are many brands of ethnic food at supermarket chains “but none of our foods,” said Freeman. “You can’t buy a soul food entrée…It’s not a race thing; we should have our flavors and brands stocked on the shelves, just like Latinos, Asians and White Americans.”

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One Response so far.

  1. DW says:

    Good article. Now, I’m going to have be on a lookout for this stuff at the supermarket and help support our peeps. 🙂

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