Breaking Bread

How the redemption story of troubled baker Dave Dahl began to crumble.

For years, a 6-foot cardboard cutout of Dave Dahl greeted customers at Dave’s Killer Breadquarters in Milwaukie. In the photograph, a grinning Dahl with his baker’s smock, ponytail and anvil chin held a tray of the loaves that transformed a once-sleepy family bakery and made him famous.

But on the morning of Nov. 14, the real Dave Dahl walked into the lobby of the Milwaukie outlet store.

His hair now cropped short and gray, Dahl berated customers and employees—"preaching," according to a 911 call made by Dan Letchinger, the company's marketing manager.

Dahl walked over to his photograph.

"He smashed a life-sized cutout of himself," Letchinger told the 911 dispatcher, "because he is the symbol of a brand."

Each Dave's Killer Bread wrapper carries a cartoon drawing of its namesake, smiling, confident and strumming an electric guitar. "A whole lot of suffering," the wrapper says, "has transformed an ex-con into an honest man who is doing his best to make the world a better place…one loaf of bread at a time."

The bread is good enough to sell itself, but Dave's own redemption story is what made him legendary: a violent criminal and addict gone straight who created a product people loved.

Ten hours after his Nov. 14 appearance at the outlet store, Dahl, who turns 51 this week, rammed two Washington County sheriff's patrol cars with his Cadillac Escalade. Deputies had been called to deal with a man having a "mental breakdown." Dahl faces a felony charge of second-degree attempted assault with a dangerous weapon. He declined to speak to WW for this story.

The news was heartbreaking for Dave's Killer Bread, a family company with close-knit employees, as well as customers who admired Dahl's efforts to stay sober and out of trouble.

“Dave is a real person with real challenges,” CEO John V. Tucker tells WW in an email. “He has been very public about his struggles with mental health and addiction.”

Dahl's potential return to prison underscores the risks the company took by turning him into a cheerful cartoon character on its label—Tony the Tiger, but with a rap sheet.

It's not clear what triggered Dahl's most recent troubles, but five people who know him tell WW he has been drinking since at least 2011. Three say they have seen him become increasingly dependent on alcohol.

The people who know Dahl say he was drinking when the company sold a 50-percent stake to a New York investment firm in late 2012 to expand Dave's Killer Bread beyond the 14 Western states where it's sold now.

It's not clear what the firm, Goode Partners, knew about Dahl's drinking, which could pose a threat to the clean-and-sober image used to market the company's bread.

"We are truly and deeply committed to the legacy that we have been handed," Tucker, who was named the bakery's CEO last April, tells WW. "We intend to make Dave's Killer Bread a national brand. There hasn't been any change in that plan."

In 2009, Glenn Dahl told Inc. magazine that the rise of Dave's Killer Bread depended on his brother staying clean.

"But if he did relapse?" Glenn Dahl asked. "The company would suffer, tremendously. I'd do everything I could to stop that from happening."

Dave Dahl made his mark in a white-bread industry.

Americans buy $21 billion worth of bread a year. The market is rapidly consolidating—with huge corporations like Flowers Foods and Bimbo Bakeries USA gobbling larger portions.

In Portland, regional baking brands Franz and Oroweat dominate. Lots of small bakeries are trying to stay afloat—like the one run for 58 years by the Dahl family.

James A. "Jim" Dahl started out making doughnuts in 1955. He began to specialize in organic breads in the '60s—a tough market then, made tougher because he didn't like the hippies who would become his customers.

He created a signature product, a sprouted-wheat bread he called Surviva, in a shop on Southeast 122nd Avenue and Division Street in Portland.

Jim Dahl died in 1998. For three decades, the family bakery has been run by his eldest son, Glenn, 59.

"They're still fairly regional," says Eric J. Schroeder, managing editor of the trade publication Food Business News. "It's safe to say they've made a fairly significant jump."

That transformation began when Dave Dahl arrived on Dec. 27, 2004, after he got out of prison for the last time. Glenn Dahl gave him a ride home from the bus station and offered him a $12-an-hour job at the bakery.

Dave, then 41, never liked working at the family bakery. But Glenn had given his younger brother a chance to go straight.

"Dave was always the most creative among the four siblings," Glenn Dahl tells WW by email. "He has a wonderful ability to know what tastes good and what might make it taste better."

Glenn encouraged Dave to work on a line of breads intended to appeal to younger customers.

What Dahl created were breads so dense with seeds—sunflower, flax, pumpkin and sesame—that the loaves looked like they'd been rolled in a bird feeder. Dahl dubbed the breads "killer."

He debuted four bread varieties—Killer Bread, Blues Bread, Rockin' Rye and Good Seed—on Aug. 4, 2005, at the Portland Farmers Market in the Pearl District.

The vegan, USDA-certified organic bread dovetailed with the ascension of boutique grocers like Whole Foods and New Seasons, and patrons willing to pay $5 for an artisanal loaf.

The bakery employs nearly 300 people, producing a line of 15 breads. Until recently, the company was known as NatureBake. Now, everything it sells bears the Dave's Killer Bread logo.

Its annual sales total $53 million—up from $3 million a decade ago, when the company started shifting its emphasis away from old product lines as Dave's Killer Bread took off.

"I go out there and tell my story," Dave Dahl explained to The Register-Guard in Eugene in 2011. "People want to hear it, and they'll buy my bread."

The power of that story was made stark by the depths Dahl had reached.

The Dahl family's third son chafed at his strict Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. He was drinking, smoking weed and taking hallucinogens by the time he was a teenager. "Alcohol seemed pretty cool," he wrote in a 2008 memoir, Good Seed, "releasing my inhibitions and deadening the pain as I bounced my head off of sidewalks and fists."

He was tormented by depression. "The strongest memories I have from my childhood," he writes, "are those of contemplating suicide."

He dropped out of Gresham High School in 1980, took his first injection of crystal meth in 1984 and was arrested for the first time in 1987, for burglarizing a house.

Over the years, Dahl was convicted of eight felonies. He did time in Walpole, Mass., for armed robbery. He did a year in Oregon after he shoplifted a $12.99 cellphone accessory from the Wilsonville G.I. Joe's. He fought with the G.I. Joe's security guards who stopped him, and he battled Portland cops in 1997 after trying to run away to escape a drug bust.

"Why don't you just beat me to death," Dahl asked the arresting officer, "and make us both happy?"

His last and longest stretch, for a meth-dealing conviction, came at Snake River Correctional Institution, the state's largest prison, located outside the Eastern Oregon desert town of Ontario.

Three years into his stay, Dahl decided to see a prison psychiatrist. Records show he was prescribed antidepressants. Dahl has said admitting he needed help with mental illness transformed him. He started taking computer-aided drafting classes, and for the first time felt successful.

"I hadn't found Jesus," Dahl writes in Good Seed, "but I had found a way of living that gave me the strength to leave the needle behind."

Dahl's story and unique bread offered his family's company what business executives like to call a "killer product" —an item that redefines the market.

But it also created risks the bakery had never faced before.

Richard Shymanski, NatureBake's longtime sales manager, remembers Dahl pushing aggressively to give his breads a central place in the company. Dahl wanted NatureBake to assign full shifts of workers to his bread. He wanted more space on the company's shelves in grocery stores.

"We've got a 48-year-old product that we're married to, basically," recalls Shymanski. "Here comes Dave with this new product he wanted us to push, and push hard."

Dahl's pressure to have his products play a larger role created tensions between Dave, Glenn, and Glenn's son Shobi Dahl.

Shobi Dahl, 30, graduated in 2005 from Willamette University with a degree in economics—and joined the family business just as Dave Dahl began making his own breads. Shobi—who rose to become the company CEO before Goode Partners invested last year—worked with his uncle on designing the Dave's Killer Bread wrappers.

Shobi Dahl declined to speak to WW. An internal 2008 email, first published in a profile of the Dahls by Inc. magazine four years ago, reveals the relationship wasn't just tense—it was sometimes frightening.

"You are incapable of intelligent conversation that does not involve yelling," Shobi wrote to Dave. "You have an 'I am god of bread, bow down' aura around you that makes me sick to my stomach…. You threatened to hit me."

Dave Dahl has said Shobi's accusations were false. Glenn Dahl told Inc. that Dave never hit Shobi but was sometimes "a fraction of an inch away" from violence.

Shymanski says Dave Dahl won out inside NatureBake because customers demanded his bread.

"He was right in saying we should have been focusing more on his stuff earlier," Shymanski says. "Dave's Killer Bread is the biggest explosion I've seen in 40 years in the bread business."

The boom emerged from a decision by the Dahls: They could have just sold great bread, but they decided to put Dave front and center in the marketing scheme.

Each wrapper includes a personal testimony: "15 years in prison is a pretty tough way to find oneself, but I have no regrets," Dahl says in one version of the wrapper. "If I had not suffered, I can safely assure you that you would not be reading the label on a loaf of my Killer Bread."

His fame took off. WW reported Dahl's comeback story in a 2006 farmers market feature. Since then, profiles of Dahl playing up his prodigal-son story have been run by more than two dozen media outlets, including The Oregonian, 1859 magazine, MSNBC and The New York Times.

Each story repeated Dahl's turnaround, as summarized by Portland Family magazine: "the formerly depressed, drug-addicted convict-turned-bread-guru businessman extraordinaire."

He told his story to inmates at California's San Quentin State Prison and to businessmen at the Portland Business Journal's annual power breakfast. "You start now," he told teenagers at Salem's Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in 2011. "I don't have a lot of respect for people who aren't making changes in their own lives."

Dave's Killer Bread took that idea seriously. The company worked closely with mental-health nonprofits. Nearly 30 percent of the company's employees are ex-cons.

Lee Warren, a convicted felon, started working at NatureBake in January 2011, and left last year to start a bakery for Iron Tribe, a Clackamas-based drug and alcohol recovery program for ex-cons. He's known Dahl for more than a decade.

"When Dave is Dave," Warren says, "he's given so many people second chances."


It's not clear when Dave Dahl's redemption story fell apart. But by the middle of 2011, he was drinking again, according to what three of Dahl's friends tell WW. It was something he and his family knew could jeopardize the business.

Glenn Dahl and other company officials declined comment on when they knew the company's icon was drinking.

By last year, the company was looking for outside investors, people who would sink millions into Dave's Killer Bread to expand the brand, largely on the reputation of Dahl and his clean-living story.

They found one. On Dec. 27, 2012, Dahl announced it himself. "Hey, guys, I've got some killer fucking news," Dahl said in a Web video, the company bleeping out the obscenity.

The amount the New York-based private equity firm Goode Partners invested in Dave's Killer Bread has not been made public. Goode Partners' website, however, says the investment firm usually sinks $10 million to $30 million into its ventures. 

Goode Partners specializes in taking regional brands and launching them nationally. The firm did this recently with the Austin, Texas-based Mexican restaurant chain Chuy's.

Perhaps its best-known success is Skullcandy, the Utah headphone manufacturer. Goode invested in the company in 2009. By 2011, it made an initial public offering of stock, which is now traded on the Nasdaq market.

Industry experts say whether or not the Dahls mentioned Dave's drinking, his addiction history added risk to the purchase.

"It probably wouldn't stop me from buying," says John von Schlegell, managing director of Endeavor Capital, a Portland-based private equity firm that has invested in WinCo Foods and New Seasons Market. "It would go into the reward-risk calculations. Everybody knows he had rehab issues, and that's part of the mystique."

As part of the deal, Glenn and Shobi Dahl remained on the Dave's Killer Bread board of directors but stepped down as chairman and CEO, respectively. Dave Dahl remained president of the company.

In 2013, Dahl bought his second house in Milwaukie, and a cabin in Zigzag, a town in Mount Hood National Forest. He also bought a new Chevrolet Corvette and a Cadillac Escalade.

By spring, however, the company knew he was struggling.

In late May, Dahl went to a rehab clinic in Utah, according to two longtime friends. They say he was compelled by an intervention from family and employees. Text messages sent by Dahl to a friend show that by August, after returning from rehab, he was on leave from the bakery.

Other events during the summer point to Dahl drinking to excess.

On Aug. 3, a 39-year-old former meth addict named Christopher Aaron Isaac Dailey went to stay with Dahl for a "boys' night" at Dahl's cabin in Zigzag. Dailey's family members say he and Dahl met a decade ago in a prison van coming from Snake River Correctional Institution.

What took place at the cabin is recounted in a missing-person report filed on Dailey with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, and statements made by Barbara Lively, Dailey's longtime partner, more than a week later.

"Mr. Dahl has been having alcohol troubles and believed he needed time with the guys to cope," Lively told a sheriff's detective Aug. 20, according to the report. "She thought Mr. Dahl was also leaning on Mr. Dailey, who had been sober."

That night, Lively told the detective, Dailey called her to confess he had been drinking—he told her Dahl had brought booze to the Zigzag cabin. "Ms. Lively said Mr. Dahl had brought the alcohol to the cabin," the missing-person report says. "She told me she was scared because Mr. Dailey 'doesn't mix well with alcohol.'"

At 3:30 the next morning, sheriff records show, Dahl loaned Dailey his Cadillac Escalade. When Dailey didn't come back, Michelle Bain, Dahl's fiancee, reported the Escalade stolen.

The Escalade was recovered in Fairview later that day, but Dailey had vanished. On Sept. 24, his body was found in a field alongside a blackberry bramble and a paint shop in Lents. His death is under investigation by Portland police.

Lively blames Dahl for starting the chain of events that led to Dailey's death. "The person I love was sitting for so long over in those blackberry bushes," she says. "It just makes me sick."

Dave Dahl declined through his attorney, Stephen Houze, to answer WW's questions regarding Dailey's death, allegations of his drinking, and the Nov. 14 incidents at the Breadquarters and with Washington County sheriff deputies.

In a statement, Houze said Dahl could not comment because of the pending criminal charges.

"However," Houze added, "Mr. Dahl and his entire family wish to express their appreciation for the concern, support and respect for his privacy that has been shown by so many during his recent mental health crisis."

Dave's Killer Bread has posted an FAQ about the events on Nov. 14 on its website. It poses the question whether Dahl was "under the influence" at the bakery outlet store: “We don’t know.”

About 10 pm on Nov. 14, Washington County sheriff's deputies responded to a disturbance call at 2455 SW Timberline Drive in Cedar Hills—the home of Bill McShane, a personal investment adviser with Umpqua Investments.

A woman called to report Dahl was acting erratically. Deputies arrived in two patrol cars as Dahl was leaving in his black Cadillac Escalade. He rammed one of the patrol cars head-on. Deputies pursued him in their cars for a half-mile down Timberline Drive. Cornered, Dahl twice rammed another patrol car before being pinned by a third.

The Washington County sheriff and district attorney's offices declined WW's request to release information about whether Dahl had alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of his arrest. Both offices say those records are sealed while the case remains open. McShane bailed Dahl out of jail, and Dahl is on leave as president of the bread company. On Nov. 19, Bain, Dahl's fiancee, posted a message on her Facebook page she said was written by Dahl.

"The most challenging circumstances can be used to bring about miraculous change in our lives," the message says, "and that's my plan for the future."

Jerry Gjesvold works with Oregon drug and alcohol treatment center Serenity Lane to help companies develop substance abuse policies. He's been a recovering alcoholic for 36 years—and says sudden success poses dangers for former addicts.

"When good, positive things start to happen to you," Gjesvold says, "you feel unworthy. I'm sure that there's a sense, 'Do I really deserve this?' He knew where to go and what to do to not feel that."

WW asked Glenn Dahl by email what customers should think about his brother's struggles and what remains of the redemption story that helped sell Dave's Killer Bread.

“Healing and recovery is a lifelong process,” Glenn Dahl says. “Dave is human, and redemption is a journey for all of us.”

WW interns Ramona DeNies, Ravleen Kaur and Alex Tomchak Scott contributed to this story.

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