THE GOOD SEED
WORDS David Bentley
Photography Tim Sugden
We have seen throughout history how the power of a single driven individual can affect the lives of countless people. Our cover-featured interviewee this issue is Dave Dahl, the “Good Seed” creator of Dave’s Killer Bread. Known as a champion of “second chance” jobs, personal ambassador for mental health issues, avid collector of African tribal art, writer and musician… ok, he’s basically a badass.
Dave’s maverick ambitions in the organic food and baking industry have made him a baker of legend. Today, millions of bread lovers coast-to-coast enjoy the bread bearing his iconic cartoon-figure, guitar-jamming likeness.
His journey goes from a restrictive religious upbringing, to high-speed police chases, finishing with a lifestyle that rivals an MTV “Cribs” episode; going from bad seed to good. Dave’s Cinderella story has never been lacking in hard knocks and gut punches, beginning even before his teenage battles with depression, acne, girls, and drugs.
With a rap sheet leading to 15 years’ incarceration within multiple states, Dave decided to raise the white flag in desperation during his fourth and final prison stint. This provided a chance to see if anti-depressants would alleviate some of his internal anguish. That fateful decision changed everything in his life and the “good seed” was born that would impact innumerable lives in the process.
Today, I find myself 27 stories up in a penthouse with 360-degree panoramic views of downtown that occupies the entire top floor. It happens to look down upon the Portland Farmers’ Market where Dave sold his first loaves of bread. The decor is contemporary with accents of tribal art from his private collection. In front of me is a relaxed Dave Dahl in jeans, tee shirt and boots with his guitar just an arm’s reach away…
Dave Dahl: Over there. That’s where the ‘good seed’ started to blossom. Good memories. Still seems unreal. All the things that have happened. The failures and successes. The growth.
Narrator: He takes a drag on a Camel Wide, his last addiction besides a steady fitness regimen. Addicted to something most of his life, Dave was in and out of trouble, and in and out of prison for about half of his life because of those addictions.
Dahl: You see that homeless guy down there? I was probably worse off than THAT guy when I was in Detroit. At one point, I was so useless that I got kicked out of the slums and started living in abandoned houses. Swarms of cockroaches would scatter in all directions when I woke up and lifted my head from my coat, or whatever I slept on.
Narrator: I am thinking… How is that possible? How does any person go from sleeping with cockroaches to living in a multi-million-dollar penthouse in any one lifetime? How does one go from stealing from strangers to giving futures to ex-cons? Let alone doing it in record time while still fighting addictions and mental health issues along the way?
Portland Interview: What’s the secret to going from the sidewalk to where you sit now? Why don’t you bottle that up and sell it?!
Dahl: (Laughing) I wish I could! But really, anyone can change. In my own past, I had the power to change at any time, all I had to do was the next right thing. Then the next, and the next. And so on. But if you want a secret, mine was: don’t make excuses. Stop blaming others. Take charge of your life. Excuses and blame – they’re stall tactics to growth.
Narrator: Years back, I had heard the legend about his one-of-a-kind, organic, expensive—and as I found out—addictive bread. Is there a theme here? As we start to walk back in his pad, I spot a loaf of the yellow-bagged Killer Bread.
PI: I love the yellow flavor. That’s my favorite. Yours too, I take it?
Dahl: Yeah, “Good Seed”. Say it out loud! The name means something very important. Good Seed is the epitome of my recipes. But for me, it’s personal. Very personal. All I’ve been through, my journey, my family legacy, my Dad’s legacy – it’s all literally wrapped up right there.
Narrator: Dave’s father James Dahl was decades ahead of his time, a 1950s baker making a healthier bread before hardly anyone anywhere cared. If you follow the seed back to the beginning, you might conclude that Dave’s Killer Bread (né Nature bake, né Survival Foods, né Nature’s Storehouse, né Midway Bakery) was HIS baby. His dream of creating a revolutionary natural alternative baked product would culminate 60 years later through the success of his sons’ own organic bread line, when Dave’s Killer Bread was sold to the 2nd-largest bakery in the country in 2015 for $275M.
Jim Dahl was a hard-working hard-liner. A Richard Nixon Republican who had disdain for the very liberals who comprised the majority of the “underground” market that kept his business, then named Nature’s Storehouse, from being a complete failure. When they were old enough, his four kids (Glenn, Linda, David, and Albert) were required to work there after school and on Sundays. For the Dahls, bread has always been a family business.
Jim, by all accounts, had a heavy-handed, authoritarian approach to raising a family. They were raised as he had been, as Seventh- Day Adventists, attending SDA schools and church on Saturday, the Holy Sabbath. But he did not attend church, himself. According to Dave, his father typically had a “do as I say, not as I do” parenting style.
Wanene, Jim’s wife, was also a strict SDA fundamentalist in her beliefs and approach to life. She was kinder and gentler, and unlike her husband, she followed to the letter the interpretation of the Bible she had been taught. Everything ultimately revolved around church and family. Sending her kids to a strict SDA school, she dutifully helped her husband and tried to teach the children the right way. “My folks were ill-equipped to handle me,” Dave admits, “I think I was uncommonly sensitive, and I had a lot of feelings going on inside that I could never really express so that anyone could understand.” His Dad was focused on bread and his mom was focused on God.
Dahl: From as early as I can recall, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. We didn’t fit in, anywhere. I was ashamed of the way my family was and how we lived. If it were a movie, there would be a soundtrack reminiscent of “Deliverance,” though we didn’t live in the boonies. But if we had, we probably would’ve shared living quarters with the livestock (grins). We were essentially barely getting by, financially, and we lived a very poor quality of life, in so many ways. My socially inept parents, run-down living quarters, ratty cars, and tattered clothes were all a source of shame for me.
PI: What were some of their qualities you valued that might have been passed on?
Dahl: I think my dad had a saving grace, and that was his offbeat creativity. But Mom was the grounded one, even if I felt that the foundation she was grounded to was essentially not reality-based. Undeniably, they were honest folks, and worked very hard for very little return. I’m sure this ethic served me over time. My dad was full of off-the-wall ideas, but he was angry and depressed so much of the time. I bet he would be diagnosed as bipolar, today. If he could’ve overcome the demons that ruled him, I bet he would have accomplished a lot more. But people didn’t discuss their mental health problems in those days. He would’ve never admitted a problem, and therefore he could never overcome it.
PI: Challenge can often enhance or empower other talents…
Dahl: In time I’ve come to believe that independent, creative thinking and mental illness can be two seemingly conflicting aspects of the same personality. The same thing that makes you laugh, can make you cry. Makes me slower to judge my dad, others, and myself. But when I was 12, I just saw my dad as a slob, a dummy, and a prick. I hated everything I was born into. I felt increasingly trapped.
PI: Sounds like you were battling an identity crisis.
Dahl: Yes. I’d been basically taught that everything was strictly black or white. Particularly God and religion. And, more and more, I wasn’t buying any of it. My few misfit friends and their families were SDA believers as well, so for fear of losing what little social acceptance I had, I just kept my non-belief to myself. What was happening was very uncomfortable—screwing with my mental wiring. When I was about 12-13 years old, I just didn’t believe what I was being taught anymore, but in desperation, I gave one last chance to the God who it seemed was such a real and essential part of everyone else’s life. Would “He” answer just one prayer or give me just one sign, like those given to the doubters in the Bible? So, I went on a sort of spiritual quest. After church school every weekday, I got down on my knees and prayed for belief to return. Then, I read a section of the Bible, and finished once again on my knees. The more I did this, the less of the Bible and many other “facts” rang true for me. My mother was aware of my doubts, and I know it was tough on her. She tried to counter it but wasn’t equipped for it—she had never “been there.” As my spiritual disillusionment fed a new kind of hopelessness about ‘the meaning of life,’ I began turning to drugs to fill the despair. My behavior started to change, and my mom was so concerned that she sent me to church leaders, who seemed irritated and dismissive of my doubts, like my thoughts weren’t valid. They weren’t there to counsel lost souls like me.
Narrator: The universal existential crisis. Dave had a big one at age 12 that would change the course of his life and everyone around him for the next 40 years. We talked more about his emotional state being entirely dependent upon things like the weather, girls, and of course his authoritarian parents and church. “I think my loss of faith in the god that ruled the world in my childhood had a devastating effect on me. I had a very hard time believing in anything, especially myself. The only things that brought me some relief were exercise, playing my guitar and watching Blazer games with my dad.”
PI: You and your dad were Blazer fans?
Dahl: Indeed! My dad and I shared a passion for the Blazers that gave us a basis for at least a little bit of a relationship. They were rarely televised back then, but Bill Schonely’s killer radio voice made those games come to life on my little red, donut-shaped Panasonic transistor radio. I was 11 years old when Bill Walton was drafted in ‘74, and my dad and I had something to hope for. For a couple of years, they did lose more than they won. But when they did win, I won. My dad won. When they won the NBA title in ‘77, it was magic!
Narrator: What comes up, comes down. And for the newly hopeless Dave, it came down hard.
Dahl: Suicidal thoughts were a regular thing in my teen years. I probably had what would now be called ADHD. It was bad. Couldn’t maintain concentration long enough to finish a conversation. By 14, I remember that I had discovered rock music, alcohol, and marijuana. Whether I was sober, or I was buzzed on something, I steered clear of anything that required paying attention.
PI: Early teen years are tough for many…
Dahl: Well, I had face and body acne so bad that I was often too ashamed to go in public, let alone on a date. If I could get enough sun on me to dry and clear the skin, I would begin to get hope—and occasionally, even hook up—but it was a chronic and debilitating problem. My low self-esteem and inability to concentrate kept me from trying a lot of things, made me feel stupid, and all those things just fed upon each other. So yeah, suicide seemed like a reasonable option. I increasingly hated my dad and everything about my family and I just wanted out. All the winners in life seemed to believe that suicide was the weak and easy way out, but I felt pretty damn weak, and it didn’t seem easy to me at all. I guess ‘cuz deep down, I knew I wasn’t done just yet. I had unfinished business.
Narrator: I glance over at a picture of a young man, clean cut, 70’s garb and swagger. Dave catches my eye-line and says, “That’s me.”
Dahl: I was hopeless and deep down, searching. Crazy stuff always happened—I scared even the other loser/outcast/misfits and on the second day of my senior year at Gresham High, I was sitting alone at lunch when I decided to leave it all behind and run away. I had about $500 and I packed a bag and hit the road, hitchhiking eastbound. I think this was the first time I tried to find a geographical solution to my problems. Long story short, I was back in 10 days. Got stuck in Nebraska, and I got a bus ticket back to Portland, disillusioned once again. After all, the real problem, my broken heart and empty soul, were always there, wherever I went.
Narrator: Dave trying to escape his negative circumstances and internal angst would become a pattern. He would soon move out and move in with his 7½ year-older brother, Glenn.
Dahl: Glenn had grown up way ahead of us kids, he seemed to have a better foundation. He was also my boss at the bakery, which he was taking over because our 50-something dad was starting to have health problems. I really looked up to my older brother and thought he had it all figured out and I guess I unfairly assumed he’d have it figured out for me too…
Narrator: By age 17, Dave was attending a lot of rock concerts, along with a loose little clique of weed-smoking, acid-eating, and drinking buddies.
Dahl: None of us were ladies’ men, but I always felt like the unluckiest of the bunch. And to this day, I don’t think I was overreacting. Life was shit, and I made it worse by using substances that rarely had a positive effect. At 18, one of my misfit buddies joined the Marine Corps, and something amazing happened… He came home from boot camp a very different, better man. It was my first indication that people can change. I was inspired to join up myself, hoping they could make a man out of me, too.
PI: Uncle Sam going to whip you into shape?
Dahl: Yeah. While I was near the top of my 55-member platoon in physical performance, I had no chance in the classroom. Partly due to my inability to concentrate, and partly cuz I couldn’t see the chalkboard or anything else. I wouldn’t wear the thick poindexter glasses I was prescribed for nearsightedness. If that wasn’t enough, my body acne was at perhaps it’s all-time worst. I had it everywhere. My zits had zits.We had nightly shirt-off inspections by the drill instructor team, and they began to single me out for ridicule as an unwashed pig. Why else would I have acne so bad?
It was all crushing to an already broken kid. So, what did I do? I ran away. I waited till Thanksgiving Day, when I knew most of the staff would be home with their families, and we were given the opportunity to attend the church service of our choice. I was the only Seventh-Day Adventist in the platoon, so this was my chance. I dressed in my “K-Mart issue” PT shorts and Hanes white undershirt beneath my dress khakis and made off like a worshipper. But instead, I walked to the tall fence, jumped it and started running thru the airfield that borders MCRD. I took off my khakis and dumped them in the trash. I just kept running, for hours. Finally, an off-duty MP chased me down and tackled me. Took me back to the depot and I spent the next 3 days in CCP (Correctional Custody Platoon) sanding wood blocks and PT’ing all waking hours. I refused to go back to my platoon, and they eventually realized I was a lost cause.
It was a new all-time low for me. Another clear sign that I was a loser and a ne’er do well. Took a few weeks to get me out of there, with a General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions, basically blaming my recruiting gunnery sergeant for all of it.
Narrator: After his short stint in the Marines, Dave got married and had a baby girl, (Davene Michelle—now 33 and living in Sweden) somehow thinking all of that would finally fill the void.
PI: They say having a kid can make a man out of you?
Dahl: Not so much. Not a lot of critical thought went into it until we were both trapped and miserable. And of course, fighting over everything. I kept leaving her, running away again and again but always getting lonely and returning. Finally, she had enough of my BS and left me, and didn’t come back. I got an overdose of my own medicine, and the desolation returned, greater than ever. I had trouble getting out of bed to go to work in my dead-end bakery job, and after work and my days off, I would lie on my bed for hours, essentially unable to move a muscle. That’s what serious depression is like.
Narrator: After the marriage, Dave took the first steps to becoming a true-blue drug addict.
Dahl: At this point, I had nothing left, I was certain that I was a born loser—dead last in the rat race. And if I had known what the next 15 years were gonna be like, I probably would’ve taken myself out at that point. Instead, I hooked up with my next-door neighbor and started drinking, doing a little coke and having sex. I used to keep my shirt on when we were intimate to hide the bulk of my acne—that had to seem weird to my partner. But she had her own appearance issues, so it kinda evened the playing field (chuckles).
Narrator: Unimpressed with the amount of coke Dave could afford, she suggested they do “crank” for a cheaper, longer high.
Dahl: I had heard nothing but bad things about crank and the people who do it. But at this point in my life, I felt that I had nothing to lose.
Narrator: What happened next amounted to what Dave calls “my first transformation.”
Dahl: My neighbor called ‘The Man’ and this seriously wild-looking wiry, long-haired freak showed up. I was getting ready to snort a line when he said, “Come on, man—you wanna take the bus, or the rocket?” Being a pussy, but not wanting to seem like one, I said, “The fucking rocket, man”. One marvelous injection later, I was reborn. Gone was the depression and low self-esteem. I felt powerful. The world was instantly everything I wanted it to be. I wanted to be around people, and women seemed to want to be around me—and, of course, my dope bag. I could focus on things, like conversations. I seemed to be better at everything, maybe cuz I suddenly wasn’t overthinking things anymore. Even my acne began to clear up!
PI: Were you working at the bakery? How did you afford this?
Dahl: Yes, I was working at the bakery. Barely. I would eventually come down from the high and couldn’t even stay awake. My relationship with the family and work deteriorated, and eventually, I lost my ability to maintain my job. I soon began my criminal career with jockey boxing car stereos, then burglaries of all sorts. I was never very skilled at any of it, but my addiction gave me a temporary chemical courage. That “courage” got me in a whole lot of trouble.
Narrator: Dave shows me numerous pictures of mugshots. More than I can believe, and all very different looking.
Dahl: Crazy isn’t it? Those mugshots represent various arrests, sanctions, and county bits in multiple states – totaling close to 15 years of time served out of what could have been a lot more.
Narrator: I’m incredulous hearing how “Be the Change” Dave lived a real-life mix of “The Wire,” “Dog the Bounty Hunter” and “Breaking Bad” for decades. Dave wants to make it very clear that he never killed anyone, and the bread was named ‘Killer Bread’ just because it was ‘killer good!’.
Although the law usually caught up with him, he twice turned himself in out of desperation. Dave continues…
Dahl: In the earlier days of my ‘jackassery’, I followed my then girlfriend up to Detroit where things went from bad to worse, and fast. Her heroin-addicted sister and brother-in-law took her in but saw no use in me. Earning less than $25 a day repairing shipping-pallets, it was hardly enough for food, let alone decent shelter, and if I was going to maintain a drug habit I had to do more stealing. When I found out my now-pregnant ex was stripping to make ends meet, I was hurt, jealous and angry – and my chronically-low self-esteem was at a new low-point. All it took was getting shot at after a burglary to say, ‘enough is enough’ and turn myself in for a free trip back to Oregon and a seven-year prison sentence for outstanding warrants. It was actually a relief.
Narrator: The result was his first state prison sentence, 7 years (though he only did about a year before parole) for a 1st-Degree Burglary conviction. He points out that amid all the darkness of this time, his second daughter, Jessica, was born. Dave now counts all his struggles as blessings, but this time, due to the “Jess Miracle”, has special significance. She now works with Dave and is mother to two little girls that Dave never stops gushing over.
Dave continues with abbreviated story after story of desperate violence and “criminal stupidity” taking place over a dozen years: stealing cars and the gasoline to operate them, robberies with and without weapons, sawed-off shotguns, serious drug dealing and dangerous debt collecting, running from the law, dozens of arrests and multiple beatings by cops and corrections officers. Dahl recounts his final stretch as an “aspiring gangster”, an 18-month whirlwind of “successful”, “not-so-successful”, and disastrous illegal activity beginning in early 1996 and wrapping up with a wreck at the end of a high-speed chase, and an arrest by federal, county, and state authorities that effectively ended his reign of terror. After serving multiple sentences in Oregon, Massachusetts, and Wyoming, “I knew this one was gonna leave a mark,” he laughs. “I had gone for broke, gambled big and lost, one last time.” He was facing mandatory minimum 15 years federal under the Armed Career Criminal statute, and another 5 years for gun possession. Dave’s story becomes even more incredulous.
PI: I mean, how do you crawl out of such a deep pit where you are federally recognized as a “very serious bad guy,” to creating a business that receives an Ethics in Business Award from the very state that last locked you up?
Dahl: That’s the rub. If I can do it, anyone can do it!
PI: So, what was your last prison stint like?
Dahl: For years, it was a lot of suffering, being depressed and not being able to sleep. I was dreaming and fantasizing about dying. I was thinking it would have been great to have enough pain pills or heroin to take me out, but I didn’t have access to that. I was now in my mid-30s, and I wasn’t a kid anymore. This was kid stuff. The strip searches, beatings, fights—they’re over quick. The rest of the time, the worst part was being alone in my cell at night, facing the bleakness of my situation and the fact that I didn’t have any answers. The dope was no longer an answer. I had lost way too many times. Most of all, I had years of excruciating boredom and self-reflection and self-loathing to do. Long, dark tunnel ahead. Not a glimmer of light at the end. I knew that most everybody out in the street who may have been an ally had abandoned me, like every other time. I was at Snake River, about 400 miles from home in Ontario, on the Idaho border. That’s a drive I didn’t want to put anyone through. People have lives. What was there to live for? How could I take myself out of this twisted, cruel game, forever?
Narrator: We walk back to the kitchen and he offers me a Vitamin Water or diet soda. Being in the presence of a gym rat, I enthusiastically choose the Vitamin Water. We move over to the living room and sit down amongst his collection of guitars and museum quality African tribal art. I’m taking it in slowly because I feel a little bewildered and almost raw after hearing more details about his past. How did such a bad seed go good and turn his life around in a country where ex-cons are thought of as hopeless?
Dahl: Ironically, this is where the story gets good! I was entering my longest stretch of Hell ever. I suffered daily with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Could I find an easy way out? I seriously considered dismantling the prison-issue bic razor for the tiny little blade.
PI: I guess inside you’d get a lot of rest and recovery?
Dahl: A lot of nights, I just never could get to sleep, with endless thoughts of hopelessness and despair, and when I did doze off, nightmares. A recurring one was that I was out on the bricks and dealing, and got busted for something very serious and with my record, I was going down for the count. I would be on my way back inside, with no hope of ever getting out. Then, I would wake up, breathless, shaking, sweating, and look around at my cell with a sense of relief. I still had a chance. And it would motivate me, if only a little, to not give up.
PI: How long was this period of adversity?
Dahl: Basically, from fall of ‘97 to fall of 2001. Periods of “tough guy” bravado, a letter and photos from some girl, getting my hopes up. A lot of external bullshit that just didn’t last. My peace was entirely dependent on my circumstances, so usually I just felt powerless, freaking screwed. Up to this time, I had always believed that my devastating, suicidal, depressive dips were just “normal” reactions to having been born to lose—in other words, I was a realist, right? Never occurred to me that life sucked because of the way I saw and reacted to it. It had always been, “who wouldn’t be depressed with a shit life like mine?” Not a subtle distinction. And if you think it’s easy to reverse that mentality, think again. I don’t know how the seed was planted, but I know I felt a lot of hopelessness before I finally made the pivotal first courageous step. I reached out to psych services, knowing this decision would likely mark me as a mental case and a weak player in the eyes of the majority of my peers, but, (he puts heavy emphasis on the following words) it was the best move I had ever made in my life — the part of the story when the bad seed is reborn as the good seed.
PI: Sort of a Matrix pill moment? All the lights turned on?
Dahl: I may never know how much of my transformation was due to the depression meds (Paxil), and how much was the result of simply surrendering, and for the first time accepting myself exactly as I am. Just being that guy—no more and no less. And then, showing up as that guy to every battle and opportunity.
Narrator: (Meow) We both look over at Dave’s little long-haired gray and white cat, Lil’ Bittie, roaming through the living room. Dave calls to her in a sort of kind, fatherly tone: “Hey Bittie, Bittie. Come on, baby.” Bittie comes over and jumps in his lap. He starts to pet her and continues:
Dahl: I think, for me, the meds were a huge factor. But I’ve found that not everyone benefits from them. I think I was ready in a way that could only come thru the kind of adversity that leaves you no choice but to find a solution. The Paxil seemed to help me to short-circuit my negative mental pathways. Essentially, my mind became a whole lot clearer. Between that and my new ability to accept myself just as I was, I became teachable.
First obvious benefit was music. After my body’s initial medication adjustment period, I began to get excited about practicing my guitar, and grateful to have that privilege at all. Then, a very short time later, my name came up for entry into the AutoCAD training program—which had a waiting list of about 3 years, so it was amazing timing…and I killed it. I really began to excel at drafting after quickly overcoming the self-doubt that I had when I looked around and saw how quick everybody else seemed to be at things—like even turning the computer on!
Ya know, it was 2001, I was 38, and right in the middle of a long prison sentence. And guess what? For the very first time in my life, I was free! I began to see that I could let go of resentment and anger, that I had a choice in my thoughts and actions, and just as I was learning to design furniture and buildings on the computer, I could do that very thing with my life!
I forgave myself. It was incredibly powerful to accept who I was, with my many faults and failures. And with the gift of forgiveness, I was able to feel compassion for others. I forgave my dad and began to honor his memory (he had passed away in 1998, at 75). Through the power of compassion and forgiveness, I started to look at my captors differently. When they came to work with the seeming objective to ruin our day, I began to wish peace for them. After all, they got to go home every day, so why were they so hateful and miserable? I wanted them to get it, like I had begun to…that’s the essence of “giving back”, I think. You want everyone else to have this amazing thing that you’ve found. This became the way that I approached my life, going forward.
PI: Sounds like prison helped you? We rarely hear of stories where being locked up works out positively…
Dahl: No cut and dry answer. I know first-hand that you can come out of prison a transformed human. The ingredients in my transformation began with adversity and the desire, even necessity, to change. Not to expect people, places, and things to change. What could I change about me? Then came surrender. If you’re not willing to surrender, be vulnerable, humble, and teachable…forget it. Also, as I said, I think the antidepressants worked wonders. From there came opportunity, in the form of meaningful, practical education. So, from my experience, all those things added up to my success. Change your mind, act on it, change your future. Personal accountability. Stop blaming and making excuses and take control. Nobody is going to, nor should they, do it for you.
PI: Do you feel that your transformation was destiny?
Dahl: Maybe. People may be surprised to learn that throughout the DKB years, I thought I was doing a sort of spiritual work. The Good Seed recipe and the deeper intention of “good seed” was a major milestone in my life which was, and always will be, extremely personal. A lot of what DKB stood for and accomplished was always beyond bread and marketing and making a buck. I believe I found the ultimate and purest form of marketing – I did what I believed in.
“From the moment I stepped off the bus, I haven’t stopped busting my ass. So much time to make up, and not a minute to lose,” wrote Dave Dahl about getting out of prison for the final time, in a 2008 memoir called, Good Seed. “I can’t count how many times I’ve been released from jail or prison, but this time was much, much different. I had experienced a rebirth. I hadn’t ‘found Jesus’, but I had found a way of life that gave me the strength to leave the needle behind.”
“…The story of my life so far: mental illness self-medicated with drugs, funded by crime…This time around, my plan was tempered with the hard-won humility borne of prolonged adversity. That humility gave me the courage to accept my ‘lowly’ position in life, even embrace it, owning responsibility for my past, present, and future.”
If all of that isn’t enough, he wrote this, which was on the verge of prophetic: “Dope and money were the monsters, and I must never forget their power over me or my love for them. I’m not that well, and I never will be.”
According to the same memoir, Dahl “was fortunate” to have a place to go upon release from prison — his mom’s garage. He was also fortunate for the opportunity his brother, Glenn, gave him to return to the family bakery. “Unlike every other time, I was ready, even excited, for the opportunity. I looked forward to applying my confident creative mind to the family’s endeavors. I knew the family aspect would be a challenge—as it always had been from the point of view of a third child, my point of view. I had no idea how difficult this would be. I won’t get into the family dynamics. Somehow, with help, we managed to make it through.” He started quickly out of the gate at $12 an hour, filling in for absent production workers. It wasn’t long before he was working full-time. He doesn’t remember how long it was before he started working on his own bread line. He had to fulfill his first mission, to reformulate the Trader Joe’s cookie line. “That first assignment was straightforward, but I had my eye trained on creating killer new cookie recipes when Glenn pulled on the reins and pointed out that what we were about was bread. That’s what the shop was optimized for.” Dave was reluctant to get off the cookie train but couldn’t argue with Glenn’s reasoning. “It was the opportunity, and a much greater challenge. After testing so many good bread varieties on the market at the time, I was a little sheepish about my potential for creating something better. This objective didn’t feel comfortable at all. But, you know, fuck comfort. Whoever made their mark in comfort?”
PI: Clearly, you’re not afraid to take risks. Did you apply that same philosophy to your marketing approach at the time you were creating your bread? Did you study the science of marketing, or were you just a natural?
Dahl: I read a short marketing book around that time. My takeaway was that I needed to think in terms of endowing my products with features and benefits. What features do people want in healthy bread? What benefits? Could I find out by doing surveys? I certainly tried and found that folks really couldn’t define what they wanted that was different from the status quo. But I could envision what I wanted, “killer bread!!
Narrator: So, he settled into creating a bread that was kind of a hybrid of chewy hot cereal and whole grain bread. He made many trips across town to Bob’s Red Mill to find additional healthy ingredients for even more flavor, texture, and nutrition. Nutrition analysis software was a powerful tool for choosing ingredients and combinations for subsequent testing.
Dahl: The first formulation was ‘Blues Bread, the “mother of killer breads”. The second was “Killer Bread” (soon changed to Nuts and Grains to avoid consumer confusion), then ‘Good Seed’ and ‘Rockin’ Rye.’ Visually, the breads were almost “works of art” but most importantly, they were simply killer. People were having ‘out of body’ experiences over the stuff. (Laughs)
Narrator: We’ve stepped back out on his back patio, so he can take a smoke break, “Right down there,” Dave points down to a park area.
Dahl: The first real test was at the Summer Loaf artisan bread festival sponsored by Portland Farmers’ Market in summer of 2005. We were incredibly fortunate that this event existed for the short time that it did, because it turned out to be the perfect test market. My nephew, Shobi, who Glenn appointed as my partner in the bread project, accompanied me to the event and we gave out samples and within minutes, had small raving crowds in front of our booth. Within the next few months, it was clear that we had a sensation, and the media was noticing. People started asking where they could get the bread when the farmers market was over in November. I pushed for them to request it wherever they shopped. At first, finding outlets was a real struggle. And while nothing about it was smooth or easy—or, for a long time, lucrative—it was obviously a worthwhile endeavor. It took all my time and then some. I worked tirelessly to find, create, and take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace. Glenn’s desire for this brand was for it to be ‘separate’ from Naturebake because he had begun to feel that the name and the products it stood for had not aged well since he had taken over and renamed the family bakery in the 80s. The company had been successful particularly with private label production for Trader Joe’s, but Naturebake, as a brand, wasn’t doing so well. Glenn felt that a “new, hip” brand was in order. His name for my creations was, “Dave’s Bread”, and since I had named one of my first 4 varieties, “Killer Bread”, the name, “Dave’s Killer Bread” just caught on. From that point on, of course, all varieties I created were called that. It was an obvious opportunity—probably a necessity—to tell my story. So, I began writing a bread bag-friendly short and sweet version of my story, focusing on my transformation beginning in 2001.
I can’t remember the timeline of everything, but after talking with a copyright attorney, Mike Heilbronner, it was clear that we needed a distinctive logo for a distinctive brand. I sketched my idea—which was basically a guy representing “Dave” holding a guitar, painted on a gray brick wall and “Dave’s Bread” in big, block letters next to him. Someone has graffiti-tagged “killer” in red paint over the words, “DAVE’S BREAD”. I was always a little disappointed that none of us, including the artist who drew the final version of the logo, Ryan Alexander-Tanner, could execute the original idea. It was just too much for a logo. The current logo was a nice compromise. Ryan and I made cute logos for each variety—it was a lot of extra work. After I was gone from the company, however, so were the logos—except that first one.
Narrator: Dave and I sit down, and he fondly reminisces about how some farmers’ market fans got Food Front Co-Op to first stock the bread, and then New Seasons began stocking it by 2006. Later that year, Fred Meyer came on board. “It was like, 2 steps forward, one back, a step sideways, or a trip,” he says, “Always making corrections along the way, often learning a very valuable lesson. Critics were everywhere especially in my own backyard. But the more they criticized me, the more I knew I was onto something. The status quo would eventually be replaced with a new paradigm”. Because of the growing volume and commitments, the family business moved into a former Bob’s Red Mill location in 2007.
Dahl: This was a time of great struggle, getting a loan for the new location, the move itself, and endless fighting between partners. We almost didn’t make it. Glenn, Shobi and I were in a family bread business from our births through DKB. It’s not just a product. For us, our entire lives were literally wrapped around a loaf of bread. It cost a lot. Along the way, Glenn had to put his home on the line so that we could get a loan to finance our rapid growth. Later, when we had something to lose, large credit transactions were secured by the three of us. The one thing I had to give, from the beginning, I gave all of. My very being. I can’t emphasize the importance of being fully invested in one’s success. Nobody was going to make up for the effort I wasn’t willing to give. That effort, up to the advent of Costco and for a couple of years after that, was indispensable.
Narrator: The Good Seed memoir was completed in 2008, and Dave was being asked on a regular basis to tell his story to many groups. Recognizing the “perfect storm” of product promotion and the opportunity to give back, he asked his partners to approve a budget to make a DKB story video.
Dahl: I believe I had a budget of a grand. I knew that wasn’t enough, but I felt that my ‘sweat equity’ would payoff here too. I would do the writing, and the videographer would shoot me telling the story. Simple, right? Well, the video dragged. It sucked. Content was there, but it just wasn’t fun to watch. Right around that time, I met a music producer from Nashville, Michael Nelson Rizzo, who had discovered the bread while in PDX. As an experiment to show what great music could do, Michael took just the first two minutes of the video, edited it for flow, and put his original music to it. The result was an entirely different animal. We worked out a deal for him to re-edit and produce an entirely new video. Michael finished the video (several versions of which you can see on Dave’s website, davedahl360.com) and I began a speaking tour that lasted until 2013. Like clockwork, the more I toured, the more in demand my message was. Several times a week, sometimes twice in a day, covering multiple states. It was grueling, but very rewarding, personally and professionally. This happened to be about the same time we secured Costco and were getting help from other bakeries fulfilling production demands. We did ambitious Costco “road shows” in every location, while I would present my story in each area, and we got media attention at most stops. It was simply phenomenal.
PI: You’re well known for giving ex-felons second chances. Any insight into that?
Dahl: With the fast growth, we were hiring employees. Since it had been so successful in my case when Glenn gave me a chance, it was a no-brainer to me that it could work. I had experienced this transformation and I knew there must be people like me out there who were ready. What I believed from my own experience is that others would be grateful, perhaps more than non-felons. Of course, you want to get those who are ready. What is their answer to questions like, “What have you been doing with your time while you were locked up?” If they’ve been taking all the programs and taking advantage of every opportunity—even if it was cleaning toilets—they pass the first test. You want success, so you pick the best person available, felon or otherwise. To me, the rewards are exponential: your business benefits, the person benefits, his family benefits, the community does, and—by extension—the world is a better place. We had failures—some doozies—but overall, it worked, and apparently is still working today.
PI: How tough was the competition?
Dahl: Bakeries started mimicking the recipes and branding. I knew early on that there would be knockoffs of my stuff, but I didn’t foresee the dirty tricks and blatant and uninspired one-upmanship that was to come from competitors. The most obvious was Franz, the local big boy on the block. First, they made us an insulting offer to buy a part of us. We had the good sense to reject that. But, I’ll tell you a story, and you draw your own conclusions. In 2008, I was spending more and more time on the road, largely in the Puget Sound, dealing with the monumental challenges of adding scores of stores, from Fred Meyer and Whole Foods to Central Markets and PCC (a major chain of co-ops in the Puget Sound). Continuing to work days, nights, and weekends demoing and rotating stock, while manning booths at all kinds of events, doing speaking engagements, and dealing with the media. We advertised to fill the position of operations manager at “Killer Breadquarters” in Milwaukie. We were very green at hiring at this level, and we thought a “former” Franz employee might be able to help us. But, from day one, the guy was ineffective, non-communicative, and overall, a pain in my ass. Somehow, we let him stay around for approaching two years, but Shobi and I agreed that he had to go—right about the time that he gave his notice, citing retirement on the Oregon coast and some “consulting work.” We had mixed emotions: happy to see him go, but a little concerned about what he was going to do next. Coincidentally, a few months later, products and packaging imitating DKB started appearing on store shelves. The most obvious—though flattering—imitation they came up with was “Great Seed”. What does that even mean? My brand, Good Seed, represents my turnaround in life from Bad Seed to Good. It represents everything good—every seed I’ve planted to make a difference. I’m proud of the work I have done and plan on continuing til the day I die. If I had made Bad Seed Bread, and it had been successful, would they call theirs Worse Seed? Somebody should be ashamed of themselves. Such is the condition of the Big Bread world.
More changes and growth happened north, south and to the Midwest. We had logistics issues, quality control issues and employee issues that eventually required bigger players in the corporate world. The union was starting to give us trouble and misaligning our reputation, amongst other falsehoods. (Dave says with some force)
Narrator: To help with this new level of corporatocracy, DKB partnered up with venture capital firm Goode Partners in January of 2013. That solved some issues but created new ones that it appears led to a very dark point in Dave’s life. Bringing on partners meant control and focus started to shift.
Dahl: It wasn’t a family bakery anymore. It was big business. We were now in hundreds of stores and had grown to over 300 employees within a matter of years. Unforeseen pressures were mounting. With business success, came partying. I hadn’t taken a vacation since it all started in ‘05 ‘til 2009 when Michelle—my new girlfriend and I went to Indio, CA and I spent the whole week getting acquainted with my alcoholic side. Drinking really seemed to agree with me. (he chuckles.) For several years, it was fun, and since work always came first, it didn’t get out of control for a long time.
PI: Was there a turning point?
Dahl: I got to a point where I needed a driver, because I was traveling so much, and I had ongoing social media, correspondence, quality assurance, and other things that I needed to keep a handle on. Michelle was my first driver, and I would do my work in the passenger seat. We would stop somewhere, and I would get a good buzz on and get back on the road. By 2012, this was a regular thing. We were working hard. I was doing my presentations and events. And I was celebrating my success—and relieving stress—by drinking. All seemed innocent, though a bit on the edge.
By mid-2013, I was beginning to lose control of things. Small incidents were occurring—I was drinking more, and I was alienating some folks. Looking back, so much was dependent on me continuing the transformation that had begun way back in 2001, and I was putting everything in peril. I don’t remember the moment, but it was decided that I would go to treatment in Utah, to keep it sort of on the down low. Thinking it was my last hurrah, I drank like a fish for the 24 hours or so before checking in. When I did check in, I had a .5 blood alcohol level, which probably should’ve killed me.
Forty-five days later, I drove my brand-new Corvette back to Portland with good intentions. But within two weeks, I was making my annual appearance at the Waterfront Blues Festival, signing autographs, shaking hands, taking photos. Afterwards, we moseyed over to the bar and had some shots of tequila. The next day, word of my dalliance had gotten around, and I was called to the principal…er…CEO’s office. My title was President, but I had stopped being involved in any day to day stuff by then. It was decided I would take a sabbatical. I was even forbidden to come onto company property. It was the beginning of devastation, the end of the magic. What did I do? I sure didn’t stop drinking…
In August, some buddies and I took a “boys night” at my cabin on Mt Hood. Three of us got drunk. The fourth wanted something different—cocaine—and though I hadn’t used coke in over 15 years, in my then state, I was game. I let him take off in my Escalade, and we never saw him again. Fifty-four days later, he was found decomposing in some briars on the Springwater Trail. People started coming onto the DKB Facebook page and accusing me of many things, particularly, killing him. Things were beginning to crash in on me. I got an attorney and I got counseling. I quit drinking for several weeks. But I was becoming resentful and angry, particularly that I was exiled from everything I loved, what I had created and built, my baby.
Resentment building, I made an appointment one day for a photo op with an athlete DKB was sponsoring, and I agreed to meet him at Bread quarters. I entered the little bakery outlet store and saw a life size cardboard cutout of me and had the feeling, “How the hell can my cardboard image be here, and I’m banned?” — and took a swing at it. Cops came, but I just drove away—they didn’t follow. Things escalated from there. My mind started racing and I was literally going crazy. I would learn later that I was having “a manic episode.” I drove toward Seattle with Michelle and had pretty much lost it at this point. I had never experienced my mind being so intense. It was beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.
PI: Were you on drugs or drinking or anything else?
Dahl: Nothing. Hadn’t been for weeks. But on that surreal drive to Seattle, I asked Michelle to stop at a liquor store in Tumwater for some tequila. As wound up as my mind was, I thought that the booze might take a little of the edge off.
Narrator: They decided to turn back from there. When they got to Portland, they stopped at a friend’s house. But Dave’s behavior was so bizarre that they kept the alcohol away from him and called Washington County Mental Health. Instead, the police came and parked in various places in the neighborhood. Dave didn’t know about the police and decided to drive home— “to comfort, and hopefully, sanity.” What happened after that is unclear. Police reports contradict each other. Dave can’t remember enough to tell the story. Three cop cars were damaged, as was his Escalade. “They tased me, then beat me up pretty good. One day, when I write a book, I’ll read every report and talk to everybody who’s anybody who will talk to me and maybe I can come away with the truth. One thing is for sure, I lost my mind that night.”
At this point, there’s a heavy feeling. Dave obviously doesn’t like to talk about this period in his life. He really lost a lot. But it’s clear to me that the system just wasn’t set up to handle a big guy with a mental health breakdown. He tells me about the media and police reports that made him look like a bad guy all over again. “I’m certain of this: I had no motive except for a wish to be in a safe place. Somewhere between my memory, and those police reports, is the whole truth.”
He ended up agreeing to accept a verdict of “guilty except for insanity” and has years left under the watchful eye of the Psychiatric Security Review Board.
We continue to discuss the mental health system and his lifelong battles with drug and alcohol addiction, the correlation with mental health and his bipolar manic episode, and the continuing effect on his life.
“With everything going on at the level it was, I learned that I was in a hypomanic state for several days which evolved into a full-blown manic episode,” he says. “Being bipolar does not define me but it does explain what can happen and tendencies I might have,” he continues, “I have to be vigilant about it.”
In Dave’s case it seemed to be a ‘perfect storm’ of serious life changes and stress from the bringing on new partners and Dave’s ‘baby’ growing up in a way he wasn’t ready for. And if I consider how that must have felt, how can anyone be ready for something like that?
PI: Your face, name and beloved guitar are an icon on millions of bread bags nationwide. What the hell is that like?!
Dahl: After the incident, the vast majority of my history as creator, president, brand ambassador and community impactor all disappeared. It hurt. (he looks down.) I had let my ego overtake my former, powerful humility, which had been a fundamental part of my earlier success (refer to the prophetic 2008 memoir). I think above everything, no matter who was right or wrong, what probably hurt me most is letting my fans down and all the people who looked up to me – knowing they’d never hear the whole story – or even believe it.
Narrator: Over the next two years Dave would settle into a more minimal role at the bakery and begin some new endeavors of his own. One of which would grow to become one of the largest collections of African tribal art in the nation with Dave becoming a serious high-end collector in the process. “I didn’t intend for this hobby to become what it has, but it has been a beautiful and timely diversion from stress.”
In 2015, Dave’s Killer Bread was purchased 100% by Flowers Bakeries, Inc. for $275 million. “Flowers is the 2nd largest bakery in the country and wanted to make a serious move into the organic foods market,” Dave says with some bitter-sweet satisfaction. Today, the Dahls have nothing to do with the company that bears their legacy.
PI: Wow. Your name and face are on a bread bag in millions of homes every day from coast to coast, but you have nothing to do with that endeavor. What’s that like?
Dahl: In one sense it’s hard to see my ‘baby’ out there and not have anything to do with it. But with how things went, it had to be. And, for the most part, I’ve moved on emotionally. The bread is all over North America. But the story has changed. My part has been diminished. The links to my accolades are disabled. The company has moved on from my story.
PI: That must be disappointing. But you don’t strike me as the type of guy who likes to dwell on the negative…
Dahl: In the early days when I put my name on the bag, I wondered how long it would take before I could see how this influences people and makes a difference in their lives. Years later, it seems like every day someone comes up to me and let’s me know how they themselves or someone they know has been inspired by my story. Say, to start their own business, overcome mental illness or addiction, or to find the courage to go in a new direction that fulfills them. That’s what all of this is really about to me. Everyone can benefit from the lessons of my story. It’s about finding success in the purest form, regardless of circumstances.
PI: In what other ways are you using your life experiences and wisdom to help others?
Dahl: I’m working with organizations like Central City Concern to help disadvantaged folks find resources and inspiration to build better lives. I’m also working to support NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It’s a core value of mine to help those who are ready and serious about bettering themselves. I’m keeping my eyes open for ways that my experience can make a difference.
PI: What other things are you doing to keep busy and stay out of trouble? What’s the next chapter?
Dahl: My story continues. I’m getting back out there playing with my band, The Killer Granddaddies. So far, we’ve played a few charity events and parties of friends’. Come check us out! I’ve got a new podcast called Felony Inc., in which I interview—fittingly—ex-felons starting their own businesses. I want to spend serious quality time with my daughters and granddaughters. I want to work on improving opportunities for felons, at-risk kids, and others, and promote the power of humility and accountability, inside and out. I’m working with others on business and brand development opportunities and doing some writing—maybe a book is coming.
I’ve been asked to speak to groups all over the country. As long as my sweet n’ sour story resonates with people, and matters, I’ll be finding new ways to tell it.