Behind the Mask: Dave Dahl Launches an African Art Importing Business

Dave Dahl's new business
written by Kevin Max | photos by Joni Kabana

At age 54, Dave Dahl is starting over.

After more than two years of collecting masks and other tribal artwork, the icon of Dave’s Killer Bread now finds himself with a big bet in the African art world and on the path to healing from his well-publicized darker past.

This unusual journey was inspired by one night in 2014 at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, where a dark wooden mask, 6 feet long, caught Dahl’s attention and fed his imagination. “I saw these long primitive masks up on the wall, and I was moved by the way they would integrate animal and human elements,” Dahl recalled. “I ended up buying lots of these masks, and African masks got my attention because of the way they brought in the abstract.”

Discover African Art, whose motto is “African art for the soul and home,” is composed of 20,000 pieces, more than 16,000 square feet of warehouse and showcase space in Clackamas and Portland’s Pearl District. “I’m not sure, but by size and potential I’m probably the biggest African art dealer in the country,” he said.

Long-haired and built like a weight lifter, Dahl created himself in the image of resistance to his dad and his upbringing in a Seventh-day Adventist household. In 1997, Dahl began a decades-long cycle of drugs and imprisonment, returning to baking bread and trying to come to terms with his past. “One of the things I’m working on is forgiveness,” Dahl said, his voice deep inside his chest. “I spent my life resenting my dad. He was everything I didn’t want to be. In prison, I came around to saying, ‘Hey man, life is hard.’ My dad had things that made him the way he was.”

Dahl founded Dave’s Killer Bread in 2005 as a new line to his family’s baking business, and turned marketing on its head by not only not concealing his felonious past but by embracing his time in the criminal justice system. His business plan would horrify most investors. He hired ex-convicts to work alongside him making bread. What should have gone wrong, didn’t. Consumers had a heart, it seemed, and the story and quality behind Dave’s Killer Bread touched them. The maker of Good Seed organic bread was an instant hit, and soon bags featuring the long-haired ex-con with an electric guitar were essential bindings of the American sandwich.

In August 2014, Georgia-based food conglomerate Flowers Foods Inc. came in big and acquired Dave’s Killer Bread for $275 million. “It was my baby,” Dahl told The Oregonian at the time of the buyout. “Now it’s everybody’s baby.”

Over the three decades, however, Dahl was fighting addiction, depression and just about anything that got in his way. Drugs helped him escape the family’s baking business, then, inadvertently, led him back to it.

“It started at Dave’s Killer Bread,” he recalled. “I had experience with transformation of myself and believing in what I was doing as a 180-degree turn from before. It was me experiencing my own change. I realized that I could be a part of other people’s transformation.”

Now he’s trying to battle back in business and in life. He’s in drug treatment, goes to counseling and is coming to terms with his demons while buying masks from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, statues from Cameroon, and Nigeria and textiles from Mali and Ivory Coast. The pieces range from $75 hand-woven blankets to statues and masks that run well in the thousands of dollars. His personal favorites are masks from the Songye tribe of the DRC. “Their stuff just speaks to me,” he said. “The masks are kifwebe that are completely abstract and represent something that doesn’t exist in nature.”

Of course, falling in love with one mask in a dark concert venue and building an import business out of Africa are two planets a universe apart. “Just about everything I get passionate about, I want to make a business out of it,” he confessed. “I love it so much I want to share it with other people.”

Early in 2015, Dahl reached out to a mentor. “I found out about an old guy in Issaquah,” he said. “He originally had an African art shop in Seattle. I visited him and we had a great time.” Dahl left with $50,000 worth of African art and connections to buyers throughout Africa. There was no turning back.

Flouting traditional retail business models he knew from Dave’s Killer Bread, Dahl aggressively acquired as many pieces as he could get his hands on. His passion for all things African deepened with each new piece, each new container. Letting demand dictate growth “would have made too much sense,” Dahl quipped. “To get down to it, I think that I had money to spend.”

On a Thursday in August, Dahl opened a small gallery showroom on 11th Avenue in the Pearl District. This launch begins a new journey for the entrepreneur-turned-art dealer. “I’m in a good place right now,” he said. “I feel like I’m on a great path.”

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