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A Purpose-Driven Popcorn Shop Readies to Open in St. Paul

Highland Popcorn, which uplifts workers with disabilities, will debut early next year.

11:31 AM CST on December 15, 2023

Facebook: Highland Popcorn|

Conor O’Meara (left) and his dad, Shamus, are just about ready to open Highland Popcorn.

As the father of a 25-year-old with autism, Shamus O’Meara knows how challenging it can be for folks with disabilities to find meaningful employment.

"Our experience from a family perspective—and also as an advocate, for many years, for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families—is that some of the opportunities that you and I have out there in our communities just simply aren't there or are really hard to find," he tells Racket.

But O'Meara also knows what a bright light and wonderful person his son Conor is—just listen to an episode of his weekly radio show, Conor's Corner, and you'll hear it for yourself.

That's why, for a long time now, O'Meara has been trying to launch Highland Popcorn, a business that would employ and support workers like Conor with unique abilities. And though he says it's been "a few years of fits and starts" (last year, a deal to set up shop at the University of St. Thomas fell through when the St. Paul school pulled the plug), their nonprofit popcorn shop is finally just about ready to open.

Highland Popcorn will debut soon in the Highland Village Center (2138 Ford Pkwy—a space owned by nearby Lunds & Byerlys). It'll be a public-facing, standalone St. Paul popcorn shop with a wholesale component; Lunds will also carry Highland Popcorn products on its shelves. Construction is currently underway, including the buildout of a retail counter, community space, sensory area, and more.

"It's really going to be a community oriented popcorn product production," O'Meara says. Just this week, the shop finalized a collaboration with Focus Beyond Transition Services, which helps give young adults with special education needs the skills they need for employment and independent living.

As for the popcorn, Highland will serve up a few traditional flavors—movie-theater butter, caramel corn, and a cheesy variety—plus seasonal varieties like peppermint caramel.

And most importantly, it will create meaningful opportunities for the workers it employs. O'Meara sees it as a place to make friends and build confidence through work, something many of us might take for granted.

"For an individual with a disability, the challenges that they face... this type of opportunity is far more than a job, it's really a life opportunity," O'Meara says. "To come into a supportive environment where you're geared toward success, and you're not going to be worried abut people lashing out at you or telling you you can't do something—this is all about abilities, and what you can do."

"Sometimes you just need to give people a helping hand," he adds, "and that's what we're all about here at Highland Popcorn."

If the idea of strolling through the supermarket and grabbing a bag of fresh popcorn sounds like a perfect pairing to you, well, you're not the only one. Now that the sign is up, O'Meara says it's not at all uncommon for shoppers to try the door, peering in and occasionally knocking to get the contractors' attention. The other day, while he was on a call, a couple walked in and sat down to chat about ordering popcorn.

"They didn't realize the place wasn't open yet," he chuckles. "It was very endearing."

Those eager shoppers will have to wait a bit longer yet, but O'Meara expects the opening date will come early next year—definitely before Valentine's Day, for all your related gifting needs. You can follow Highland Popcorn on Instagram and Facebook for updates.

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