comeback snacks founder emily o'brien beside bags of her popcorn

This Popcorn Shop is Destigmatizing the Ex-Con Label, One Kernel at a Time

Almost every job application form asks one simple question: “Do you have a criminal record?” For many people, it’s easy to breeze by it without a second thought. But for an ex-convict, it can feel like an impossible employment barrier to overcome.

comeback snacks founder emily o'brien beside bags of her popcorn
Comeback Snacks founder Emily O’Brien

After being sentenced to four years in prison for attempted drug smuggling, Comeback Snacks founder Emily O’Brien knows this firsthand. “If you’re an employer and you have two candidates, you’re probably going to go with the person who doesn’t have a criminal record just because it seems like a safer bet, without knowing anything about the other person.“

Which is why O’Brien decided to do something about it by starting her own business helping ex-convicts like herself: “I knew I couldn’t let my sentence determine the rest of my life in a negative way,” she explains. Food felt like a natural path to pursue: “When I was in prison I noticed the ways food brought people together. It made people laugh and forget where they were. It also allowed people to talk about their anxieties about reentering the workforce. They were terrified of being misunderstood and stigmatized and having no one believe in them. I wanted to change that narrative for myself and for others.”

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5 bags of comeback snacks popcorn on a marble countertop
Comeback Snacks Popcorn, $6/bag, well.ca

And so, over many bowls of popcorn (a prison-approved snack), the idea for Comeback Snacks was born: “We would make different popcorn recipes, my favourite was Kraft Dinner cheese, I called it Jailhouse Cheese. I would buy Kraft Dinner from the canteen and put the cheese powder on the popcorn,” says O’Brien. “Some people would put mixtures of spices, some people would use a blend of cinnamon and Splenda from their morning coffee. It was really interesting to see how creative a lot of people were.” In many ways, popcorn provided the blank canvas O’Brien needed to map out her future: “I knew this would be the vector to my new way of life and my way of helping others to reenter the work force by proving that we are capable of so much more.”

That kernel of an idea turned into the thriving business that Comeback Snacks is now. With the help of friends and family on the outside, Emily mapped out her business while in prison and went full speed ahead once she was released, developing many of her flavours while living in a halfway house. Today, with five sweet gourmet flavours on their roster (think: Lemon Meringue and Salted Chocolate Caramel) and a staff of 5 employees (all of whom have criminal backgrounds), Comeback Snacks popcorn is in over 200 stores and ships across Canada. Each employee also earns above minimum wage: “Financial struggles are often a leading cause of why someone could become incarcerated,” says O’Brien. “When you come out and you have no credit or job and you’re trying to get an apartment, it can be really hard to build that foundation. We’re trying to help with that.”

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In addition to hiring staff with criminal records, part of Comeback Snacks’ mandate is also to work with organizations that align with their values through fundraisers and popcorn donations, including the Yonge St. Mission, the Elizabeth Fry Society and even the SPCA: “Animals need a second chance too!” says O’Brien with a laugh.

 

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Comeback Snacks also recently opened their first bricks and mortar location in Hamilton, Ontario called Comeback Commissary. “Instead of it just being a store with popcorn it’s an educational experience for people to come and learn about the prison system and break some of the stigmas they may have,” says O’Brien. “I have a storytelling wall with my old uniform, pictures and other documents that explain the institutional challenges that limit people and make their reentry into society very difficult.” The shop also plans to serve as a community hub in its off hours: “We’re going to host AA and NA meetings. A lot of people that have worked with us struggle with that, and it’s important that they have a safe space they can use.”

As for what’s next? Comeback Snacks has partnered with snack food powerhouse the Neal Brothers to manufacture their popcorn on an even larger scale and produce new savoury flavours, including Lemon Pepper Dill and Emily’s own version of the Jailhouse Cheese flavour that started it all: “Instead of it being Kraft Dinner cheese it’s composed of three real Canadian cheddar cheeses.” Breaking stigmas has never been more delicious.

Related: What is Food Insecurity? FoodShare’s Paul Taylor Explains (Plus What Canadians Can Do About It)

Photos courtesy of Martyna Domurad

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