Emily O’Brien makes “popcorn so good, it’s criminal,” according to her company slogan. And she would know -- she started her popcorn business while still in prison.
O’Brien has a lot in common with the salty snack: put the heat on her in a confined space and she pops out with bigger ideas than before.
In 2015, O’Brien was arrested for drug smuggling, and was handed a four-year sentence. But in prison, she found inspiration for her new company.
Cons and Kernels is a Hamilton-based popcorn company. It has nine flavours for sale, and was started by O’Brien while she was still in prison.
O’Brien is hoping that she can use the business and her story to raise awareness for the public about the human face of ex-convicts, and also serve as inspiration for other people struggling to find their place in society after getting out of jail.
Her story starts long before the fateful moment in Pearson Airport when she was caught smuggling bricks of cocaine. The business owner told CTV News that “a lot of bad decisions,” had led to that moment. The biggest was when she fell into a crowd of people who encouraged her drug and alcohol use -- and fell in love with a person who took advantage of their relationship.
She wanted to be that “ride or die” girlfriend, she said. So when her boyfriend told her he wanted her to wear a special suit to smuggle cocaine back into Canada after the couple went on a trip to St. Lucia, she agreed.
“I was convinced by him that (smuggling drugs) was not the end of the world,” she said, “and my ignorance of the law and how serious it was sided with that.”
Getting arrested shattered the illusion that she could continue living the way she was. Facing the truth was hard, she said.
“I grew up a good kid, I had good grades … I was always a very loving child, and I think my desire to be loved by someone else got me caught up in that,” she admitted.
However, she took responsibility for her actions and pleaded guilty. And she decided to view prison as a chance to start over.
“Healing comes with accountability and apologies and patience,” she said. She started reading and writing more while in prison, and before long, she was already thinking about her next steps: what would she do once she got out?
This is when popcorn burst into her life.
She noticed other women in the prison using spices on the food budget to come up with unique ways to flavor the cheap snack.
“When we were having a Super Bowl party, someone made a lemon pepper dill and I thought it was a really good combination,” O’Brien said.
That flavouring became one of the first ideas she wrote down for her business plan.
“I spent the time in prison building the recipes,” she said. The idea of selling popcorn worked so well because it was “universal,” she said. “Popcorn was also a social snack and it was a healthier snack.”
The prison warden even let her leave for a day “to promote the popcorn.”
O’Brien only served ten months in jail before she was released on parole. But before she could put all her focus into her business, she needed to build a new network in Hamilton, where she’d settled.
She needed a job.
That’s not so easy for someone who has just gotten out of jail, according to Eddie Martinez. Martinez is a program coordinator with the Toronto chapter of HOPE, which stands for Helping Offenders on Probation Excel. He works with youth between the ages of 16-29 who have had trouble with the criminal justice system and are on probation.
“When you have a criminal record, it’s a hindrance,” Martinez said. It’s hard, he said, to get hired when companies see you as a liability.
When O’Brien applied to work at a local gym, she decided to frame her time in prison as a positive, not a problem. She handed in a resume that listed jobs she had done while in prison -- and got hired.
“Time spent in prison is not wasted,” she told CTV News. “You don’t let it waste you.” While working at the gym, her employers even allowed her to sell her popcorn there, she said.
Now, she has a website and a booming business in Hamilton. Each bag of popcorn sold reads “Cons and Kernels believes in second chances” on the back. It’s something she’s living by: she says she already has two employees who used to be incarcerated, and in the future she wants to help teach other ex-cons how to start their own businesses.
Martinez underscored how important the second chance of a job really is: “Poverty and crime works hand in hand.
“The corporate world, the working industry doesn’t really understand that these people are coming back to society (from prison), and we have to now prepare a way for them to now have something,” Martinez said. “If they don’t have nothing then we’re going to … see the increase in crime, gun violence, all these things are connected.”
As for O’Brien, she said one of the most eye-opening things about her time in prison was the similarities she found between the women.
“When I got to prison, I noticed everyone there was just like me, and that’s why I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “Crime is caused a lot by pain. It’s not caused because you want to be evil and ‘cause you want to harm people, it’s because you’re going through something that’s painful for you and you don’t know how to handle it, or you’re in a painful situation and you don’t know how to get out.”
O’Brien is still on parole, which won’t be up until 2022. But now that she’s running her business, she no longer feels trapped the way she did when she was caught in a cycle of drugs and alcohol before prison.
“(Cons and Kernels) is part of repairing that harm, while helping myself grow and be able to live a better life,” she said.