A guy can overcome a lot if he bakes a great loaf of bread. This is a fortunate truth for Dave Dahl of Portland, creator and purveyor of Dave's Killer Bread. Dahl, who has spent at least 15 of his 44 years doing time for armed robbery, assault, and other bad acts, is whole-grain proof that even someone with a magnetic pull to trouble can turn his life around.
Dahl is the first to label himself a knucklehead and former loser: "I had been my own boss for decades, even if most of that time I'd acted the fool," he writes on his catchy Web site. There he also recalls a meth-mangled past that would grab the attention of the most jaded 12-steppers:Now, not only was I running from 5 serious felony cases in three counties ... I began to see that I had nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide for long. I disconnected from my once-comfortable circle of criminals, found a pretty little exotic dancer to make my final nights bearable and stayed off the streets. After this, I had several close calls, but managed to make it 2 months before they got me one last time, in a high speed chase down [Portland's] Northeast Prescott Street.
He grew up in a Portland family of bakers and hard workers, a lucky start he eschewed to drink, drug, steal, deal, and lie, with mixed success. The drugging part he had down pretty well; but his crimes usually ended on the losing side of encounters with police.
Prison, particularly his last tour, was a tough school, says Dahl. "I was fortunate to suffer in prison, because I got clean, and for the first time in my life I was confident without drugs." He pumped a lot of iron, thought, read, thought some more. He discovered he had more than enough brain cells and talent to learn computer-aided drafting (CAD) and write music, so he did both. ("Free," a cool original guitar piece, plays on the flash version of the Web site.) He got hooked on learning about nutrition and healthy, preservative-free food. (A glossary for bread freaks also lives on the site.)
Now clean and sober, almost three years out of the joint, he's at the helm of Dave's Killer Bread and responsible for more than a dozen workers and 14,000 loaves a week of some of the best-tasting, healthiest bread to be found in these parts. (This is no small accomplishment; plenty of superb baking goes on here in the Rose City.)
The 10 regular varieties of Dave's Killer Bread have names like "Peace Bomb" and "Rockin' Rye." They come wrapped in Dave's winsome drawings of his pony-tailed, big-armed self and a flock of smiley-faced seeds and grains. The ad copy on the wrappers should be studied in every business-marketing class in the country, as proof that conventional wisdom can be just so much hot air. The company's cheery slogan touting the lack of preservatives ("Just say no to bread on drugs!") wouldn't raise many eyebrows, but a confessional bio revealing yourself as a former convict on a food product that has "killer" in the name is risky business.
As he pondered launching his provocatively styled bread line in 2005, Dahl fielded some flak from worriers around him. Maybe, he thought, they were right and he was about to make a huge mistake. But in the end, "telling my story seemed like the right thing, so we went with my gut feeling."
Dahl's gut gets some crucial backup from his brother, Glenn, owner of NatureBake, the ahead-of-its-time healthy bread business started by their father in the 1950s. When Dave was ready to rejoin the baking business, Glenn welcomed him back and encouraged his ideas for unorthodox branding. Now the only thing Dave Dahl acknowledges more often than his own past failings is his brother's invaluable support.
As open as he is about his checkered past, Dahl isn't your typical proselytizer. He writes frankly about loving his highs and then getting clean in his memoir-like blog (that thud you hear is another product-marketing expert keeling over), and when people ask him for advice about helping loved ones beat addiction, he's encouraging. But where another man who stepped back from the cliff might preach specific steps for success, he more often points people to his Web site and leaves it at that. "I can only say, 'If you can read my story, you can get help. If you aren't ready to hear it, you aren't ready.'"
In the meantime, he works, then works some more. He dreams and lives bread. The hefty loaves are sold at several grocery chains and farmers' markets in Oregon, as well as Metropolitan Markets in Seattle. More outlets will doubtless follow, but he's wary of rushing ahead. "We're going slow, we don't want to grow too fast," he says.
Bread is life-giving, universal, powerful stuff; some religious traditions believe it sinful to waste it. As it turns out, the baking of it is also a fitting medium for an unlikely artist, one determined to create something good, something real.