Serving Food Instead of Time


It’s not easy to serve time in prison and figure out a way to reintegrate into society. But John “JP” Avila has done that – and more – by drawing on his time in prison and his background as an entrepreneur to launch a food business. Prison Pies, a Phoenix, Arizona-based food cart that he owns and operates with his business partner Brittany Kidd, launched in 2021 by initially selling their prison-inspired food at farmers markets. They’ve since expanded their business to include catering. But why the focus on prison cuisine?

“Because nobody’s doing it!” said Avila. “And it’s amazing, the food tastes really good. There’s nothing else like it.”

The Prison Pies menu is based on recipes people who are incarcerated make with shelf-stable ingredients available from the prison commissary. “Our most popular dish is the tamales,” he said. “We make the masa out of Doritos — it has a lot of flavor and we add shredded beef to it. You can upgrade it with beans and nacho cheese on top.”

Another popular menu item is the Cadillac coffee, which is sweetened with chocolate syrup, caramel syrup, or candy. “It’s a staple on every [prison] yard across the nation,” said Avila, noting that in prison, access to granulated sugar is often limited since people might use it to produce alcohol. “We had to sweeten the coffee ourselves. We would add hot cocoa and Snickers or Reeses, any kind of chocolate candy.”

Feedback has been positive, both on social media and at the food cart, which is set up three to four times per week. Avila is also the subject of an award-winning short documentary film,”Tamalero.”

In addition to expanding the business with a prison bus-style mobile food truck, Avila hopes to inspire other people who have been incarcerated and provide them with financial opportunities. He currently works with the parole department, speaking with people who have recently been released from prison to help them with reentry into society. “Trying to get a job, having your rights restored — there are so many obstacles in front of people [who have been incarcerated],” he said. “We want to show people there’s a way to dig yourself out of the hole.”


Stacy Brooks

Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist focusing on food and travel. Her writing has been published in Hemispheres, Midwest Living and Wine Enthusiast, and she blogs at Tangled Up In Food.



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