Today’s unpredictable world makes starting a business more difficult than ever. But Emily O’Brien, Hamilton native and founder of Comeback Snacks in downtown Dundas, is no stranger to adversity. Her brand of flavoured popcorn – along with her devotion to improving her community – has changed the course of her entire life, and she wants to inspire others to do the same.
“In the state of uncertainty we’re living in, there are a lot of things that have been taken from our lives,” explains O’Brien. “We need some sort of hope. Sometimes when we find ourselves in these crazy situations we feel like there are no alternatives. I realized that I could make something out of my situation.”
O’Brien started Comeback Snacks when she was in prison, a sentence she served after getting caught up in a drug trafficking scheme. While such an experience would be demotivating for anyone, O’Brien took it as an opportunity to make drastic changes in her lifestyle. She began to work out regularly, quit drugs and alcohol, started reading non-fiction books and wrote regularly about her experience.
The idea for Comeback Snacks came about during a Super Bowl Party in prison. She noticed other inmates creatively flavouring their popcorn with any seasonings they could get a hold of. That’s when the idea took off, and with the help of inmates and business associates on the outside things were getting off the ground quickly.
Originally known as Convicts and Kernels, the name was changed to Comeback Snacks to better reflect the evolving brand. “It’s about moving forward, proving you can make a comeback, not alienating yourself or perpetuating stereotypes.”
Now that O’Brien is out of prison, she wants to help others facing similar circumstances and spread the message on how anyone can make a comeback in their life, regardless of their story. From the beginning, Comeback Snacks has always been more than just flavoured popcorn. She has deeply embedded her personal mission and values into the brand, an acrostic poem she calls the “Anatomy of a Comeback” which utilizes the letters of the word ‘COMEBACK’.
Commit. When O’Brien decided to get her life back on track, she committed to it fully and chose not to doubt herself along the way. Instead of letting her situation destroy her sense of self-worth, she pushed forward to become the person she wanted to be.
Ownership. After the legal nightmare O’Brien went through, it was easy for her to become disillusioned by Canada’s legal system. She knew that many women are groomed for drug trafficking in the same way she was, and the fact that mandatory minimum sentencing laws were punishing her so excessively seemed unfair. But instead of giving up, O’Brien took ownership of the things she could control and let go of the things that she couldn’t.
Moral. While we can’t change our past mistakes, we can choose how to live in the present. O’Brien has chosen to not let her past define her and become a leader in her community, helping those in need and becoming a role model for others.
Educate. While in prison, O’Brien started reading one non-fiction book a week. Within a few months, she doubled that amount. Her commitment to education not only improved her chances of success upon re-entering the community, but allowed her to use her knowledge to improve the lives of others as well.
Believe. O’Brien manages a team of three at Comeback Snacks whom she trusts deeply and chooses not to micromanage. “I tell my staff if they want to make a decision, do it. You cannot grow a business without trust. People always tell me how great it must be to be my own boss. That’s not how I see myself, the people I’m serving are my boss! I hate it when people say that.”
Accountability. Take responsibility for your actions, past or present, good or bad. It might seem easier to cover up your mistakes, but the most effective leaders are known for being honest, respected, and accountable.
Courage. Change isn’t possible without having the courage to move forward, take risks and face challenges. Life can throw scary curveballs at anyone, but the answer is never cowering in fear and backing down.
Kindness. Being kind doesn’t mean you’re naïve or weak. It’s actually the opposite. Having the strength to be friendly, generous and considerate, even when people don’t reciprocate, is a sign of a truly strong person.
So what does O’Brien want you to take away from her story? In her words, “Support your community. Have forgiveness for people you are holding grudges against. Now is the time to let go. Everyone deserves a second chance.”
As Comeback Snacks has grown and evolved, O’Brien has expanded her business to offer consulting for issues such as mental health and addiction. She has worked with parents, families, corporate HR departments and even TV shows. Her direct action is helping change the stereotypes surrounding ex-convicts re-entering society. “When you take advantage of things, it’s amazing how many doors open.”
You can check out Comeback Snacks’ newly revamped website here for current available flavours and a list of retailers in the Hamilton area.