Dave Dahl is remarkably composed as he recalls the decades when addiction and depression ruled his life. His résumé at one point was a rap sheet chock full of crime and drugs.
But even more remarkable is the way he turned his life around. Today, as the president of the Dave’s Killer Bread juggernaut, Dahl’s story of redemption has become intimately intertwined with the bread he makes—in fact, a bit of his story is on the package of every loaf.
“Everybody loves a comeback story,” says Dahl.
Bread has always played a supporting role in Dahl’s narrative. Growing up he worked in his father’s bakery called NatureBake, a Portland-based business started in 1955. Dahl was a melancholy kid whose interests included playing guitar and working out—activities that were much more enjoyable than baking bread with his parents, two brothers and sister. He eventually traded baking for drugs. Fueled by methamphetamines, Dahl spent fifteen years cycling through various jails.
At this time, his brother Glenn worried that Dahl’s violence and addiction would continue to escalate. “I was most worried when he started speaking with pride about his criminal escapades and his fugitive status,” he recalls.
During his last stint in jail, Dahl hit some of his lowest lows and knew he had to turn his life around or die a criminal. He began taking classes and antidepressants, and nurtured the beginnings of a new life. When he was released late 2004, he asked his brother if he could return to the family business. Glenn, who had bought the business from their parents in 1988, agreed.
“I had noticed a real difference in his attitude,” says Glenn. “I was excited to have him and his creativity back in the family business.” He kept a close eye on Dahl at first, but was mollified by his brother’s newfound sense of humility and responsibility.
Now clean and focused, Dahl has become a springboard for diving into the future. Sitting on a bench outside of the Dave’s Killer Bread headquarters in Milwaukie, Oregon, he is a muscled mass with a deep voice. The 49-year-old musician and workout buff wears jeans, cowboy boots and a T-shirt emblazoned with a guitar. His long brown hair is pulled back in a low ponytail. His eyes are sharp and searing.
Although Tuesdays are generally slow, the factory is humming. People shuffle around the 50,000 square-foot warehouse supervising the large vats that knead the dough as loaves of baked bread glide down the belt of a towering machine that resembles a two-story spiral staircase.
Dave’s Killer Bread employs 230 people and produces 280,000 loaves of bread per week. The private company is expected to bring in about $40 million this year—a monumental surge from the $2.5 million that NatureBake generated in 2005 when Dahl started. In 2010 alone, the company grew 50 percent and was 850th in the Inc. 5000 list, which ranks the country’s fastest growing private companies.
The humble beginning of Dave’s Killer Bread was the result of a partnership. Dahl and his nephew, Shobi Dahl, CEO of Dave’s Killer Bread, took on the task of developing a new, hip line in the family’s healthy tradition. Adding a new twist to his father’s sprouted wheat recipes, the bread is all organic and reflects Dahl’s life: Blues Bread, Good Seed and Power Seed.
Eventually all of the breads became simply “Killer.” Dahl still marvels at how everyone agreed to the name. He had served time for armed robbery and assault, but never homicide. The company’s marketing firm thought it was a disastrous idea to tell his story, but they did it anyway.
“Dave’s story has added a lot of excitement to the company,” says Shobi Dahl. “The story behind it has shaped the mission and vision of the bakery.”
The bread debuted at a farmer’s market in Portland in August 2005 and gained momentum weekly.
“I remember thinking that I am just an ex-con making the world a better place one loaf of bread at a time,” says Dahl. “It was a meaningful thing to me in that it was a simple thing … I just keep taking one step forward.”
These days, Dave’s Killer Bread is stocked at select Costco, New Seasons, Whole Foods, Fred Meyer and Safeway stores. Although the bread is not yet available east of Utah, there are many markets yet to fill in Colorado, Texas and Arizona.
Nearly 30 percent of the 230 employees at Dave’s Killer Bread are men and women who are ex-cons, like himself. “Giving people second chances is something I really believe in,” he says.
Meanwhile, Dahl continues to focus on his outreach work not only to promote the bread but also to tell his story. Whether it is making bread with kids in Eugene or visiting the Snake River Correctional Institute in Ontario—where he spent about six years—he repeats his mantra: “If I can do it, you can do it.”