On Saturday, May 21, 2022, Canada’s Penitentiary Museum, in Kingston, opened its doors again to the public after the pandemic closed them in 2020. Two weeks later, the museum celebrated its reopening with a special guest who brought popcorn.
The specialty popcorn, Comeback Snacks, is not the typical butter-flavoured variety. Neither is Emily O’Brien the typical business founder and CEO. She is a former offender who started her popcorn business while serving time for drug importation. She was sentenced to four years in 2018 and served a full year of that sentence at Grand Valley Institute (GVI) for Women. Emily was at the reopening of the museum to tell her story and promote her popcorn.
Instead of allowing her criminal record to hinder her future, she found a positive way to turn her life around. Comeback Snacks trademark motto—printed on each bag—hints of its unusual beginnings: “POPCORN SO GOOD, IT’S CRIMINAL.”
The idea for deliciously decadent gourmet popcorn came to her while at GVI. Popcorn was a popular snack and offenders often experimented by adding various ingredients available through their meal plans, like pouring melted peanut butter and jelly over the popcorn. The idea to create and provide delicious gourmet popcorn to the public was born. When Emily was released from prison, she started her own business. The original company name was Cons & Kernels, but that proved limiting from a marketing perspective, so she renamed it Comeback Snacks.
Emily O’Brien got the idea for Comeback Snacks while serving time at GVI.
Emily is upfront about her story saying, she is on “a mission to get clean and make her time in prison as meaningful as possible.” She owns her mistake and recognizes that many others are in similar situations. Through her company, she creates awareness of and supports reintegration programs and second chances for people with criminal records.
“I heard about Emily and her company through some media coverage and thought that her product might be a good fit for our Friends’ Group Gift Shop, The Keeper’s Cache, said Dave St. Onge, Curator of the Penitentiary Museum. “I proposed the idea to the board of the Friends of the Penitentiary Museum, our partner organization, and they loved it. The Friends are now pleased to be offering her product as a fundraising mechanism for the museum. At the same time, they are happy to support a former offender who is trying to make such a positive difference. It’s a win-win situation!”
Emily jokingly mentioned to Dave that she had considered naming her company ‘Confections Canada,’ a play on CSC’s name.
“I gave Emily and her friend, Michelle, a tour of the museum and during that time, Emily offered a number of personal recollections and insights of her experience with us. It was very enlightening,” said Dave.
With the help of Friends of the Penitentiary Museum volunteers, a tasting of Emily’s product was held throughout the afternoon (following COVID-19 health and safety protocols).
The full lineup of flavours offered by Comeback Snacks are: Peanut Butter and Jelly Caramel; Lemon Meringue Caramel; Salted Chocolate Caramel; Peanut Butter and Chocolate Caramel; Double Coated Caramel. Savoury flavours are also available: Triple Cheese, and Lemon Pepper and Dill. Comeback Snacks are now sold in more than 200 stores across Canada. Emily’s successful entrepreneurship is an inspiration for other offenders who are embarking on a new life back in the community.
Penitentiary Museum volunteers holding Comeback Snacks. Emily O’Brien is centre with Curator Dave St. Onge in the ball cap behind her
The museum was visited by 158 people that day. Many of them met Emily, tasted her popcorn, purchased some, and left with a new point of view.
You can read more about Emily’s story here: