This Bread-Baking, Ex-Con Entrepreneur Is Creating Jobs For Others With Criminal Pasts
Kim Lachance Shandrow | June 29, 2017
Dave’s Killer Bread’s unorthodox business model is baked around second chances, something its founder Dave Dahl knows a lot about.
The high school dropout and self-described “ex-con” co-founded the Milwaukie, Ore.-based bakery in 2005. He took the entrepreneurial leap with his brother, Glenn Dahl, while rebounding from 15 years spent in prison for dealing drugs, armed robbery and other drug-related offenses.
“I was a four-time loser before I realized I was in the wrong game,” Dave said. “Fifteen years in prison is a pretty tough way to find one’s self, but I have no regrets. A whole lot of suffering has turned this ex-con into an honest man, who is doing his best to make the world a better place.”
As the burly, six-foot-tall Beaver State native says, he’s giving back one wholesome loaf — and one job for someone in need — at a time.
A Culture of Change
“For us, it goes beyond baking the best bread in the universe,” he said. “It’s about believing everyone is capable of greatness, creating lasting change in our community and so much more.”
Dave’s Killer Bread, a subsidiary of Thomasville, Ga.-based Flowers Foods Inc. (maker of the iconic Wonder Bread brand) since 2015, employs a workforce of 300-plus individuals. Of those employees, 30 percent, or one-third, have criminal backgrounds of some sort.
“At Dave’s Killer Bread, we have had more than ten years’ experience hiring people with criminal backgrounds,” company president Marty Nash told Free Enterprise. “It’s what we call ‘Second Chance Employment.’ Dave’s Killer Bread has benefited tremendously from individuals with criminal backgrounds who are ready to change. With their ‘attitude of gratitude,’ these employee-partners have become some of our most valued and trusted workers, fueling a company culture that elevates all of us and makes a positive impact on our business.”
Beyond a Paycheck
The benefits of working at the company ripple further than simply collecting a paycheck. Dave’s Killer Bread employees have unique access to tools to help develop and enhance their hard and soft skills, from customized personal finance to conflict resolution resources and more. They also receive support from coworkers who have walked similar paths, both from behind bars and in reintegrating into society and the working world.
“We have a strong peer support network here,” said Nash. “Employee-partners with criminal backgrounds have peers they can talk to who can relate to what they’re going through and show them that lasting change is possible.”
He continued: “Those who want to aspire to leadership positions are given several avenues for growth in communication, coaching and teaching skills. In fact, we have several people with criminal backgrounds in leadership positions throughout the company.”
To start, Dave and Glenn launched four varieties of their special breads at Portland farmers markets in August 2005. In a nod to Dave’s recovery, all were marketed with the quirky tagline “Just say no to bread on drugs,” just as every Dave’s Killer Bread variety still is today. Each loaf, of which there are 17 different flavors of now, also features a bold cartoon rendering of Dave plucking a guitar. (He’s the lead singer and guitarist in a band called the Killer Grandpas, so the shoe fits.)
Today, Dave’s Killer Bread is the top-selling organic, GMO-free sliced breadmaker in the U.S., boasting a loyal customer base of an estimated nearly 1 million “BreadHeads.” Available in more than 2,200 stores in the U.S., Guam and Puerto Rico, several Safeway and Vons locations among them, the business makes millions of dollars in sales, year after year.
Seeds of Entrepreneurship
“Indeed, Dave’s Killer Bread was born from a second chance,” Nash said. After his release from prison, Dahl’s brother, he pointed out, welcomed him back to the bakery their father, Jim Dahl, founded in 1955 in Portland, Ore.
“I guess you could say baking was in my blood,” Dave said, “so it was a natural fit.”
Growing up in the family bakery, which originally specialized in donuts and later shifted to sprouted-wheat breads, Dave already knew the trade inside and out. He was eager to jump back into the mix and get cooking again, this time as co-founder of his own operation with his brother, and later with his brother’s son, Shobi, as well.
Dave’s lifelong kitchen experience, combined with his desire to follow a better, more honest path, smoothed his segue into legal, legitimate business.
“Dave was ready to change and he threw himself into the work,” Nash said, “spending countless hours developing organic seeded breads with a taste and texture that customers immediately agreed was ‘killer.’”
His first batch of bread, post- his last prison release, was a hearty vegan loaf, brimming at its buttery, brown crusts with flax, sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds. He called it “Killer,” because he was sure it was that tasty and filling.
Baking a Difference
It was also “killer” because it proved to be so much more than a loaf of leavened bread. It changed his life for the better, and, later the lives of many others, including one former inmate named Mark.
In recovery from substance abuse, Mark is a chef who works in an employee cafeteria at Dave’s Killer Bread’s “World BreadQuarters” in Milwaukie. Preferring not to use his last name, he credits Dave and company with giving him a clean, new start in life.
“Dave’s has been the only thing there for me,” Mark said. “I guess they saw something in me. I came here with nothing and nobody, and had to restart my life … I work in the café. I take care of the employee’s food service – meals, snacks all that. I try to put a smile on everyone’s face every day. I’m self-appointed concierge or something. Because I was them. I know how it is.”
The Future Looks Bread
When asked what’s next for Dave’s Killer Bread, Nash said the company will continue to do what it does best: “Bake the best bread in the universe.” And you bet it will also continue to spread the word about the benefits and importance of giving people with criminal backgrounds a fresh start through training, mentoring and gainful employment.
“We are going to keep on talking about this issue,” he said, “sharing our success stories and encouraging other businesses to give someone with a criminal background a second chance.”