Hamilton

New Hamilton popcorn store to shine light on what happens when people go to prison

A former prison inmate is expanding her popcorn business with a new store in Hamilton, which she said will will shine a light on what happens to people when they go to prison.

‘It’s actually going to be like a story-telling micro museum,’ former inmate Emily O’Brien says

Emily O'Brien's Comeback Snacks will be located at 302 Main St. W. (Martyna Domurad)

A former prison inmate is expanding her popcorn business with a new store in Hamilton, which she said will shine a light on what happens to people when they go to prison.

Emily O'Brien was sent to the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., early in 2018 after she and her partner were caught bringing drugs into Canada.

The store — which will be located at 302 Main St. W. — will have a staggered opening commencing on June 14, and customers will be required to book one of the available 50-minute time slots.

"It's more about the story and the meaning of a comeback," O'Brien told CBC Hamilton.

"With this store, people can obviously come and buy popcorn but it's actually going to be like a story-telling micro museum.

"It's basically about my journey through the prison system and other people's journey through the prison system, current challenges and also highlighting a number of organizations that we work with, one of them being the Elizabeth Fry Society," O'Brien said.

It's not just about the popcorn. It's definitely more about the story and where people could really learn and engage and maybe help change their perspective on people that have been incarcerated.- Emily O'Brien

O'Brien was charged with importing drugs and later handed a four-year prison sentence.

Following her release, she launched a new business — Cons and Kernels. She later changed the name to Comeback Snacks, which which is available in more than 60 retail locations across Ontario.

O'Brien said the new store in Hamilton will feature a listening station to play the songs she and other inmates recorded in prison.

The listening station will also play CBC's Life Jolt podcast, which examines the lives of women navigating Canada's correctional system.

"On the first floor is what I like to call the comeback timeline. So, it's like the beginning of Comeback Snacks. How did it all start, how did I get arrested and then how did we build and grow and continue to help others find work," O'Brien said.

"I'm also going to have like an authentic prison outfit so people can see what we had to wear, and then also some prison journals that I wrote inside prison as well."

O'Brien said she has invited some of her former inmate friends to share their stories.

'It's not just about the popcorn'

The store will offer five flavours of popcorn. They are:

  • Peanut butter and jelly.
  • Lemon meringue caramel.
  • Peanut butter chocolate caramel.
  • Salted chocolate caramel. 
  • Double coated caramel.

"It's not just about the popcorn. It's definitely more about the story and where people could really learn and engage and maybe help change their perspective on people that have been incarcerated and open up their eyes as well," O'Brien said.

"[We're targeting] anyone who supports second chances, or anyone who likes a feelgood story, and anyone who likes to learn."

Emily O'Brien was sent to the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., early in 2018 after she and her partner were caught bringing drugs into Canada. (Martyna Domurad)

O'Brien said an official "launch party" will be held at a later date, in the parking lot, in accordance with COVID-19 rules.

She said a percentage of the sales from the launch will go to the Elizabeth Fry Society, wraparound services advocates for women as they go through the court process, incarceration and reintegration.

Julie Degroot, a community group facilitator and court support case worker with the Elizabeth Fry Society, said O'Brien has been a vital resource as a peer support worker for women reintegrating back into community.

Meanwhile, Oakville North-Burlington MP Pam Damoff said the opening of the Comeback Snacks commissary store is important, not only because it offers a terrific product, but because it shines a light on an issue that most Canadians do not want to confront — what happens to people when they go to prison, and how can communities support them when they are released. 

"Emily O'Brien served time in prison and is on a mission to change our views about rehabilitation and the importance of second chances," Damoff said.

"As a federal MP who has visited women in prison, we must do better to prevent these women from ending up in prison, preparing them for release and supporting them in our communities. 

"I am so happy to see Emily open this store to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves. She is on a mission, and I am thrilled to support her," Damoff said.

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