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  • Writer's picturePhil Chang

More on Emily O'brien, Comeback Snacks

We had Emily O'Brien on the podcast 5 weeks back, and we were blown away with her story. If you haven't heard the episode, you can listen here.

We thought we'd add a little more context to the story by including an article from the Streets of Toronto.

This popcorn company was born in prison to give people a second chance

by Erica Commisso for Streets Of Toronto Posted: February 8, 2022Photo: Emily O'Brien via Comeback Snacks on Instagram.

“Popcorn so good it’s criminal,” reads the brand’s logo. The picture above it reinforces the idea: a drawing of a blonde woman in a stereotypical, black-and-white prison uniform, her head resting in her hand. The logo sits proudly at the top of the Comeback Snacks website, on every bag of $7 popcorn the brand sells and even on founder Emily O’Brien’s promotional materials. She wants everyone to know that Comeback Snacks was born during her time in prison, and she beams with the perfect mix of self belief and desire to make a change. She doesn’t care what you think of her past. She cares about the future.

O’Brien, a petite blonde with a big, welcoming personality, owns her mistake, and uses it to push her in entrepreneurship. She speaks quickly and excitedly, not holding anything back. She engages everyone in conversation as she would an old friend, casually offering information that could stop a person who doesn’t know her story in his or her tracks.

Today, O’Brien’s daily life is a bit different than when the idea of Comeback Snacks was born. She still hits the gym about three times a week, and her wakeup and sleep times are similar to the ones stereotypically enforced in prison. But what fills her days now is volunteer work, speaking engagements day-to-day company operations. Most days, she’ll find herself making a stop at the Hamilton-based storefront, where she maintains a small office decorated with police-themed finishings above a commercial area she shares with her longtime friend, Max Francis, who runs his own business in the same space. Her store features artifacts and cheeky tributes to her time in prison–like her actual jail uniform and a decal that measures a criminal’s height–offering a constant reminder of how she got to where she is.

“The idea for Comeback Snacks was forged while I was still in prison, where I was keenly aware of the tough challenges my fellow inmates and I faced in getting back on our feet,” the Comeback Snacks website reads. “Since then, it has been the Comeback team’s mission to raise awareness for second chances, hire those in need of one when we can, and to support reintegration programs, with a share of profits allocated to like-minded causes as we grow the business. Comeback Snacks are made with conviction.”

Her year inside Kitchener’s Grand Valley Federal Prison for Women was the result of a mistake, a vacation with her then-boyfriend that landed her a drug-smuggling conviction with a four-year sentence. In 2015, she was apprehended at Pearson International Airport, wearing a special suit her boyfriend convinced her would help smuggle bricks of cocaine back from St. Lucia, where they had just vacationed.

The arrest was the crux of a time spent battling an eating disorder, masking it through toxic relationships and substances. “Part of the reason I ended up in prison was because I suffered from an eating disorder, which then turned into taking cocaine to kind of substitute, and then eventually, the alcohol. I never had any past trauma. And I had a great family, but no one’s immune to addiction or eating disorders,” she says. “So that’s what landed me on this trip, because I have an alcohol addiction and I was with someone that I thought I trusted. But I also was drinking a lot at the time. And so I just ignored these red flags.”

Sent to Grand Valley as a first-time offender, O’Brien decided to look at her sentence as an opportunity rather than a punishment.

“When I was sentenced, I knew that I was going to do something that mattered. I didn’t know what it was going to be. But I knew I wasn’t just going to write a book. Like, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything worthy of writing a book. So when I got into prison, I listened to everyone’s stories, and I just saw how everyone had done things for the same reason I did, because they wanted to escape something in one way or the other. There’s very few people I know that just want to keep committing crimes over and over again,” she says. “It’s mostly because of past trauma, or addiction, or even just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So I wanted to help rewrite the narrative.”

Her time in prison helped her realize her relationship with food was the thing that changed her behaviour, that brought her to Grand Valley. It was a far cry from her childhood, where she got good grades and took her first socially conscious trip to Costa Rica to help save turtles at 16. But in prison, she tapped into her social consciousness, inspired by the women around her and one of the most popular snacks.

“In women’s federal prison, if you’re in medium or minimum security, you actually buy your own food. You get an allowance. It’s like $30 a week, and you get to take this $30 and spend it on groceries,” O’Brien says. The available provisions included small containers of spices, the ones most people find in their spice cupboards. The dill and the lemon pepper stood out to O’Brien, who sprinkled them on top of popcorn at the facility’s Super Bowl party. It seemed so simple, but it gave O’Brien an idea.

“I kind of thought a little bit bigger about it. But I was in prison. So I knew I couldn’t do all the research. And then that’s when I decided that I wanted to create a popcorn company, but also create a company that could serve as a social enterprise, and help employ people that were coming out of the system and also create a platform for people to share their stories so people could relate and understand and be a part of the change.

“When you get out of prison, the barriers don’t stop there. If anything, they can even get worse. It’s harder to find a job, it’s hard to find an apartment, it’s hard to even find people that believe in you,” O’Brien continues. “Everyone I met [in prison], they’re just so talented at so many different things in different ways. Whether that was sewing things, or making different outfits out of their clothes, or one of them made a purse out of J cloths.

“We also talked about what we were going to do when we got out, and we just were pretty insecure,” she says. But she tapped into her past creative and marketing experience, alongside her natural inclination to go her own way, and an idea was born. “Food was something that brought people together, it was something that allowed people to connect and just kind of forget where we were.”

She spent a large portion of her time inside working odd jobs, becoming a landscaper, working in carpentry, finding a job as a caregiver for a fellow inmate’s baby and, eventually, becoming a librarian. She attributes a lot of her success to the library, from having the librarian print off peer-reviewed journals and articles about the food industry to reading 82 books in her year of incarceration, to writing handwritten blog posts to send to her business partner, a friend she knows from her former life running a social media company, which he then typed up and published on Comeback Snacks’ website. She operated that way, setting up the building blocks for the company’s eventual official opening, until she was released. “When I was living in the halfway house, I would buy the kernels at the store, and then pop it in the halfway house, and I started making little bags and going out to events and practicing my speaking. You can’t really sell it at a grocery store if it’s not a licensed space, right? But you can give it to your family and friends,” O’Brien observes. “And so I started to learn more about the food space in Canada. You know, you kind of learn how you pay for these things, because I didn’t want to break any more rules.”

Her efforts paid off and, today, Comeback Snacks employs six people, all of whom have stories that resonate with O’Brien. Each is like her, and needed a second chance–one that Comeback Snacks and O’Brien could give.

“Growing up I wanted to change the world–I wanted to fill the tummies of all those who went to bed hungry and I wanted to bring every single homeless person home and give them a safe place to stay,” writes one employee, Christine, on the website. “But life throws you curveballs. Somewhere along the way drugs took over my life and I got into serious trouble until finally I hit rock bottom. With some key support and very hard work, I was able to get clean and turn my life around. Comeback Snacks believes in second chances just like mine, and being a part of the team has given me the opportunity to share my story and maybe change the world one comeback at a time.”

Another employee, a 41-year old mother of four named Miranda, traveled along a similar path. “I’ve been with the Comeback team for a little over a year after having spent some time in prison. My turnaround story is still unfolding and is a little raw, but I find my greatest solace and peace when I’m in the kitchen preparing popcorn,” she writes. “It is so great knowing that in a small way I am helping to spread this very important message all the while going through a healing and rebuilding process myself.”

O’Brien’s social enterprise goes beyond hiring those with barriers to access, as she and Comeback Snacks offer a portion of the profits to reintegration programs, including ones run by the John Howard Society, the HOPE Program at Yonge Street Mission and the Elizabeth Fry Society. Her promotional materials offer facts on female incarceration, too, and O’Brien co-produced a documentary called Sleepers (based on her story) with Bell. Recently, O’Brien completed her parole, immediately jumping in line for a passport and taking herself back on the road. She has filed her Comeback Snacks patent in the United States, with dreams of making a real social impact, and changing the world for the better. Comeback Snacks believes in second chances, and Emily O’Brien is making the most of hers.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO

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