'So Good, It's Criminal': How a Toronto popcorn company is changing the lives of incarcerated folks
8 months ago
8 months ago
A small-batch gourmet popcorn brand is making a comeback in more ways than one.
Comeback Snacks was created by founder and CEO Emily O'Brien, who came up with the idea while being incarcerated. Aside from making health-conscious flavoured popcorn that's “so good it’s criminal,” the mission of the brand is to create awareness for second chances. By hiring those previously convicted and allocating part of the profits to support reintegration programs, O'Brien's story is as sweet as her snacks.
O'Brien, a socialite at one time in her life, loved to be partying with friends at all hours of the night. Lifestyle choices including substance abuse and bad decisions ultimately led her into becoming a victim of a drug trafficking operation. A naive young woman, unaware of the magnitude of her actions, O'Brien was facing four years in prison, a typically low sentence for what she had done. Despite the hardships she had to face, this life-changing event helped foster O'Brien onto a path for growth, and change and is why she has become the woman she is today.
While on bail and waiting to do her time, O'Brien experienced many health complications as a consequence of some of her lifestyle choices. As a result of losing two close friends to similar decisions and neglected mental health issues, she was determined to change her life. Rather than allowing the title of prisoner or inmate to define her, she was going to go in strong and come out even stronger.
The brand started by virtue of the drive and innovation that comes in circumstances that leave one with little to no options. The thought of re-integration and re-entering the workforce can cause individuals in prison a lot of anxiety. Recidivism rates are correlated to the success of an individual's re-entry. While inside, O'Brien acknowledged the power of food and how it is a shared language all over the world.
Invoking feelings of joy, laughter and creativity, “Popcorn was like this simple blank canvas for women of all backgrounds to express themselves through different mixes of spices and other flavours,” says O'Brien. She was then inspired to dress her own popcorn with different recipes and flavours as the women around her would do. Limited to what was available within the food budget, O'Brien would heat up peanut butter and jelly or kraft cheese, melting and then drizzling it on her popcorn. "The two flavours that we just launched are called lemon pepper dill and triple cheese, those are basically the first flavours that I thought of in prison, legacy flavours," says O'Brien.
I wanted to create an impact on the current problems or at least try to provide solutions, so whenever I think of that, I think, how can I help people who need it the way I got the help.
Coming from an already entrepreneurial background, O'Brien utilized her time inside to bring her vision to life. Today, Comeback Snacks uses high-quality and health-conscious ingredients to create a delicious treat designed for everyone to enjoy. With seven savoury flavours currently available, some of which are double-coated caramel, peanut butter and jelly and salted chocolate caramel, Comeback Snacks is the go-to popcorn brand. Perfect for a party, picnic or anything in between, the popcorn can be purchased online as well as at retailers such as Sobeys, Pusatries, Stock TC, Ambrosia and Metro.
While Comeback Snacks is on the road to becoming everyone's favourite fun and light refreshment, the company's mission is so much more. O'Brien is very interested in giving back to the community and second chances. Her story highlights the positive change that can occur for any individual when they are ready to make it, especially with support around them.
"I had the support but I also know how hard it is for people who don't have it," says O'Brien. "I started it not because of just snacks, I wanted to create an impact on the current problems or at least try to provide solutions, so whenever I think of that, I think, how can I help people who need it the way I got the help."
"Always give when you can. This holiday Easter weekend we worked with the [Elizabeth Fry Society, Southern Ontario Region] to package together gift bags for women recently released out of incarceration. Every little bit helps, and even small things like this can make someone's day."
Comeback Snacks works on a continuous basis with a number of organizations whose main objective is to support the integration and reformation of the prison system. John Howard Society, the Hope Program and the Elizabeth Fry Society are all initiatives educating, protecting and empowering youth, women and the community. Recently, the company was a sponsor for Renascent Laughs, an event raising money for the centres that support individuals with addiction treatment.
An ambitious young woman, O'Brien has only begun to partake in the many goals she has for the company. She hopes to one day teach entrepreneurship to anyone who needs it. She is also working to make more changes to the law. By working with Liberal MP's, O'Brien was able to get the pardon cost (the fee to remove one's criminal record) from $800 down to just $50. O'Brien's global objective is to one day be able to speak at and visit prisons around the world. Always wanting to share her story, here she is hoping to hear from others and gain knowledge from their wisdom and experience.
The name Comeback Snacks and the associated references are "a way to bring dark comedy to the brand because that is a part of healing as well," says O'Brien. An incredible woman with a compelling story and even tastier treats. If you haven't already, you must get your hands on a bite of popcorn from Comeback Snacks. A triumphant example of resilience, what's not to love?