Jobs are a focus at the new Highland Popcorn shop in St. Paul

by Carolyn Walkup The new Highland Popcorn store in Highland Village Center in St. Paul is not your typical retail […]

Conor and Shamus O'Meara display Highland Popcorn's wares. The St. Paul shop just opened

by Carolyn Walkup

The new Highland Popcorn store in Highland Village Center in St. Paul is not your typical retail shop. The people who work there are mastering new skills while earning a paycheck—something most employees do and take for granted. But for the 10 employees at Highland Popcorn, it is a big deal. The majority have intellectual or developmental disabilities, and for them, just landing a job can be a challenge. 

“It’s tough for these people to find meaningful, sustaining employment,” said Shamus O’Meara, the founder of Highland Popcorn and a Highland Park attorney whose son Conor works at the shop. 

O’Meara opened the nonprofit retail and wholesale business to help Conor and others like him find steady work. Conor is on the high verbal end of the autism spectrum. “This gives him and his coworkers an opportunity to make friends and get out into the community,” O’Meara said. “They’re dedicated workers who just needed opportunities.” 
O’Meara served as chair of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities for six years. “We learned about the absence of jobs for these people and how to give them opportunities to live as independently as they can,” he said. 

O’Meara found his employees through Midwest Special Services (MSS), an employment program for people with disabilities. “We’re excited about this opportunity with Highland Popcorn,” said Julie Johnson, the president of MSS. “The workers will gain skills they can use elsewhere.” 

Johnson said MSS currently has 60 clients who are still looking for work. “We look forward to a successful partnership with Highland Popcorn,” she said. 

Highland popcorn logo.

Highland Popcorn sells five varieties of Gold Medal brand popcorn—movie theater-style; caramel; cheese-flavored; Wowza, which combines those three flavors; and a seasonal feature, which currently combines peppermint, white chocolate and candy-cane flavors. 

O’Meara’s employees perform a variety of tasks starting with popping the popcorn. Flavors are added before the mixture is spread out on cooling tables. Once cooled, the popcorn is placed into one of three containers–cups, buckets or bags, with prices ranging from $3.99 to $11.99. 

Highland Popcorn also sells chocolate chip cookies and soft drinks manufactured by Minnesota-based Northern Soda, which specializes in 1950s-style root beer and other flavors. The store has ample seating for patrons who choose to eat there. O’Meara hopes the spacious room will become a gathering place for meetings, events and socializing. Highland Popcorn also sells packaged popcorn wholesale to other outlets, including the nearby Lunds & Byerlys. 

“It’s an honor to be able to support Highland Popcorn and how it’ll benefit the community,” the popcorn is placed into one of three containers–cups, buckets or bags, with prices ranging from $3.99 to $11.99. 

Highland Popcorn also sells chocolate chip cookies and soft drinks manufactured by Minnesota-based Northern Soda, which specializes in 1950s-style root beer and other flavors. The store has ample seating for patrons who choose to eat there. O’Meara hopes the spacious room will become a gathering place for meetings, events and socializing. Highland Popcorn also sells packaged popcorn wholesale to other outlets, including the nearby Lunds & Byerlys. 

“It’s an honor to be able to support Highland Popcorn and how it’ll benefit the community, said Douglas Loe, general manager of the Lunds & Byerlys at Highland Bridge. According to him, the popcorn will be prominently displayed along with a printed explanation about the mission of Highland Popcorn. 

Conor O’Meara, 26, is excited about his new job. “I like meeting the customers,” he said. He has another job making pizza at Parkway Pizza in South Minneapolis, and in his spare time he produces a podcast called “Conor’s Corner,” which focuses on sports “and a little politics,” he said. He started the podcast while he was enrolled in Focus Beyond, a Saint Paul Public Schools program that teaches independent living skills to high school graduates ages 18 to 22. 

Only 5 percent of adults with autism are currently employed, according to Shamus O’Meara. He is hoping that his new store will improve the employment outlook for his workers and others like them. 

Highland Popcorn is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from noon-5 p.m. Sundays. It is closed on Mondays when its employees prepare the popcorn for Lunds & Byerlys and other retail outlets. A grand opening of the shop is tentatively planned for March. 

This story originally appeared in MyVillager, a St. Paul neighborhood newspaper. 

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