“I started my popcorn business from behind bars. It gave me a second chance at life”

“I started my popcorn business from behind bars. It gave me a second chance at life”

When Emily O’Brien was 26, she was convicted of drug smuggling. While serving a four-year sentence at a Hamilton prison, she came up with the idea for a new business. Her mission: to show people that everyone deserves a second chance

When Emily O’Brien was 26, she was convicted of drug smuggling. While serving a four-year sentence at a Hamilton prison, she came up with the idea for a new business called Comeback Snacks. Her mission: to show people that everyone deserves a second chance

I grew up in Westdale, a middle-class neighbourhood in Hamilton, as the second of three daughters. My father worked for the Catholic church, and my mom was a homemaker. We were frugal, wearing second-hand clothes and hosting DIY birthday parties with homemade cakes and games. I never had cool snacks or flashy outfits at school—I was a tomboy who played sports. The other girls bullied me for it, so I started acting out. In fifth grade, I would fake an illness and go to the nurse’s office, then I’d escape and run the two kilometres home.

While I was never a very obedient kid, I received good grades. A post-secondary education was important to my parents, so I applied to the University of Guelph. I didn’t have the course requirements to enroll in the nutrition or business programs that I was interested in, so I settled for a bachelor’s degree in international development. I graduated with honours in 2012.

The following year, when I was 23, I rented a condo in Liberty Village and started a social media company called Gather. I would ask companies for a sample of their product and create content about the product in various parts of the world. One of my first posts was a photo of me wearing Tom Ford sunglasses in Argentina—and the company loved it. I scaled my business quickly by word of mouth, and within six months, I counted professional basketball players among my clients. I made just enough to pay rent and support myself.

But I was struggling. My parents were going through a messy divorce, and because I was an adult, people didn’t realize how much it hurt me. I had always been a celebratory drinker, but alcohol was slowly becoming my medication; I would party and drink several times a week. I also started occasionally using cocaine at parties, mostly to balance the alcohol. Around that time, a client—I’ll call him Noah—reached out on social media to tell me that he liked my business. We eventually met in person and started hanging out. I liked spending time with Noah because he was sober, had a nice car and exuded the kind of stability that I craved. He could tell that I was struggling, so he would do nice things for me, like walk my dogs or fix my car—without ever making a pass at me. He even hired me to do some work for his business. A few months after we started hanging out, he wrote me a few cheques as payment, but they all bounced when I tried to cash them. I didn’t think much of it because he seemed so trustworthy; I figured that something was wrong with the bank.

One morning, Noah came over to invite me on a trip to Puerto Rico. I accepted, thrilled at the prospect of travel. Then he leaned in and said, “You know, if you want to make some money, we could also smuggle drugs across the border on the way back.” I was completely taken aback. I said, “What the hell? No. How dare you,” and I asked him to leave. He texted me that night to apologize for being out of line, and he asked if I would still consider travelling with him if there were no drugs involved. I still trusted that he was a good person who had just made an error in judgment, so I agreed. He asked for a picture of my passport to book the flight, so I sent him one. We planned to meet at Pearson airport two days later.

At the airport, Noah handed me tickets for a three-day trip to St. Lucia. I was confused and told him that I thought we were going to Puerto Rico. He said, “No, I told you, St. Lucia. You must have been drunk.” I was still drinking a lot, so I blamed myself and rolled with it. 

The first two days of the trip were great: we went jet-skiing at an all-inclusive resort. But, on the third morning, Noah pulled me aside and said, “This isn’t just fun and games—we have something to do.” Half an hour later, a man picked us up in a beat-up Honda and drove us down a quiet road to a run-down old two-storey bed and breakfast. I didn’t understand what was happening; I didn’t realize that we were going to a drug deal because it didn’t look the way it does on TV—there were no menacing Rottweilers or big men in suits with briefcases, just a lady who smiled at us and said, “Thanks for doing this.” As it turned out, Noah was in debt. In that moment, everything clicked: he had asked for my passport photo so that he could send it to the dealers to let them know that two mules—he and I—were on the way, and his cheques had bounced because he’d used the money to buy drugs. My legs went wobbly. I didn’t want to do this, but I feared what might happen if I refused to go along with the deal.

The woman gave us four kilograms of cocaine—likely valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars—to carry into Canada. For the flight, I wore an awful dress and a pair of bike shorts with one kilogram shoved inside the back and another fastened loosely in the front, so that it looked like I was hoarding a box of kleenex. I was scared, confused and so angry at Noah for tricking me into this situation. He told me that he could carry all four kilograms if I wasn’t comfortable, so my plan was to go to the airplane lavatory and somehow transfer the drugs to him on the flight, but when I tried, he told me that it was too late. I would have to carry them into Canada myself. I was furious. Noah was so coy and cool the whole time, telling me that we were going to get away with it. 

When we landed, I made my way toward customs. My body language was suspicious: my eyes were darting all over the place, and my travel plans were also suspect—Who spends just three days in St. Lucia? Still, I made it past the first checkpoint, picked up our bags and headed toward an officer on a podium. I looked out beyond the officer, just wishing for everything to be over and to go home. After asking the standard questions, the officer asked—probably because I looked nervous—if I liked to party. I answered honestly: yes. Then he told me that they were going to do a physical search and asked if I had anything else on me. I paused for 10 long seconds, my heart beating and my ears ringing. I said that I did. I figured I wouldn’t be in trouble once I had the chance to explain that I was coerced into this horrible situation.

I spent the weekend in jail. My parents, still in the middle of their divorce, came to bail me out. They gasped when they saw me: I had shackles on my hands and feet. They put up $50,000 of their assets to bail me out; I felt terrible because it was all on the hook if I messed up. They knew I was drinking a lot and they were sick of dealing with my substance-related problems. I moved in with them and was on house arrest while I waited for my hearing. Reality started sinking in: I would have a criminal record, a document telling me and everyone else that I was flawed. I wanted to scream. I was told not to talk about my case because it was still in the court system. I also stopped talking to Noah. I felt so alone with my thoughts, so misunderstood and angry—at the situation, at Noah, at myself. 

My hearing finally came, after two and a half years of house arrest, in January of 2018. I pleaded guilty based on my lawyer’s advice, and I was given a four-year sentence with a chance for parole. I was escorted to a medium-security prison in Hamilton, which, to my surprise, was like a welcoming sorority. There were twelve of us in a house, and we all got along. Of course, fights sometimes broke out, but I quickly realized that there are three things that lead to prison quarrels: debts, past crimes and messing with other people’s relationships, both in and out of prison. Luckily, my slate was pretty clean in those areas, and I worked hard to get along with everyone. It also helped that I had decided to get sober, stay out of trouble and do whatever I needed to get out as quickly as possible.

It was easy to connect with the other inmates. Despite ranging in age from our early twenties to late seventies, we all knew what it was like to have people hate us despite knowing nothing about us. We were chefs, artists, mothers—all preparing for tough lives of prejudice after prison. We connected over food and cooking, which can be tricky when the knives are chained to the walls. We were only permitted to spend our allowance—$36 per week—on items from Canada’s Food Guide, and we combined budgets to make communal meals and buy occasional treats. Popcorn was a crowd favourite. One day, I seasoned some with the two spices available to us: lemon pepper and dill. It tasted awesome. I thought, I’m going to sell this. I didn’t know how I’d do it, but I was going to create a popcorn business. 

In 2020, Emily O'Brien launched Comeback Snacks, a popcorn company that fights the stigma of prison by hiring formerly incarcerated people and advocating for their fair treatment in society after they have served their time.

In December of 2018, I was released on parole and transferred to a halfway house, which allowed me to get a job and travel nearly anywhere in Hamilton freely, provided that I shared my whereabouts with my parole officer. I worked at a gym and used my income to get back on my feet and save money for my business. In 2020, I launched Comeback Snacks, a popcorn company that fights the stigma of prison by hiring formerly incarcerated people and advocating for their fair treatment in society after they have served their time. I wanted to humanize the prison experience and show people that everyone deserves a second chance.

I started by sourcing kernels and spices from Bulk Barn. I rented a commercial kitchen to make the popcorn and workshop different flavours, like salted chocolate caramel and peanut butter jelly. I hired a man who had been at Kingston penitentiary for six months. We sold our products in local convenience stores, and people quickly got behind the idea that formerly incarcerated people can have a comeback. We spread our message on our website and social media channels, and the cheeky slogan on our packaging—Popcorn so good, it’s criminalalso helped to tell our story. Soon, other businesses, like wineries and bars, became interested in our products, and we started working with a co-packer and distributor to scale our operation. We now have five employees—all of whom did time in prison—and sell Comeback Snacks at 800 locations across Canada and the US. 

Through it all, I’ve learned that it’s much more useful to focus on the future than to dwell on the past. I still don’t speak to Noah, but I have forgiven him. I’d rather spend my energy on my business and on mending relationships with my family and friends than on being angry. My business drives me and has opened doors I never could have anticipated. Every day is different: I give speeches about my experience, lead strategy meetings and attend events to promote our brand. Our vision remains the same: to provide hope to people who feel like it’s too late for them. It’s easy to judge someone from a distance, but people are worthy of another shot at life. I’m certainly glad that I was given one.