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‘Killer Bread’ rises in popularity

An ex-con's recipe for "killer" bread became an overnight success for a Portland, Ore., firm that had the courage to take a chance and reject marketing advice. Your Business.
Image: Dave Dahl
"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," Dave Dahl says of the tale of incarceration that goes on the packaging.Your Business / msnbc
/ Source: MSNBC

If you live in Oregon and like to buy organic bread, you probably already know about the criminal background of Portland-native and bread-baking entrepreneur, Dave Dahl.

He rarely passes up an opportunity let you know about his violent past: “I went to prison four times, I was a knucklehead drug addict. I was an armed robber, a drug dealer, a burglar. I did whatever.” In fact, he has printed his story on the labels of every loaf of bread he sells, and has a lengthy video about his past on the Web.

The person you don’t know as much about is Dave’s older brother Glenn. Glenn winces every time he recalls those awful years: “The fall was, at times, was pretty bad, and pretty hard to watch. I thought I would never have anything to do with him again.”

This is the story of two very different brothers and the rapid growth of the family health-food business their father started over 50 years ago.

Looking at the flickering home movies taken of the two boys decades ago, you see the boys working together in the bakery beside their father. It’s easy to see the pride shown by a young Glenn working hard to knead the dough and bag the bread.

What’s harder to see is the simmering anger building up inside Glenn’s younger brother Dave, who also kneads and rolls the dough in the family bakery.

“I hated my dad!” Dave still proclaims. “I looked at him as sort of a sissy in a way because — I thought his baking stuff was sissy stuff. And — I didn't wanna be identified with that.”

Later, Dave’s path to adulthood took a very dark turn. He was attracted to the danger and violence of methamphetamine and thrived on the criminal thrills connected with it.

Looking at his brother’s collection of mug shots, Glenn says: “Dave's personality often went from depression to aggression, and it became pretty clear that after a while that he needed to go somewhere else besides the family business." And the places Dave ended up were more than 10 prisons, where he was incarcerated for over 15 years for various drug-related offenses.

Finally, after years in and out of prison, Dave took a look at his life and decided it was time to turn things around. “I had sort of an epiphany that changed me, that made me start thinking  differently.”

Dave’s brother Glenn saw it too; “I noticed a huge change in his attitude — about midway through his sentence.” Dave started taking vocational classes and sought out help from the prison authorities to get anti-depression medications to help him. He started clipping newspaper stories about bread baking and mailing them to his brother.

This was the beginning of a new life for Dave Dahl, and a new chapter in the family business. In 2005, when Dave was released, Glenn not only gave his brother a second chance in the family business but made him a partner, along with his son Shobi, who had just graduated from college.

Taking Dave back into the family business was not an easy decision: “Of course I was concerned, you know, re-offense is common. With his history, he had done it many times in the past, but I had very high hopes. I felt very positive that this was going to be different this time.” Shobi says his father was looking for fresh blood to kick-start the business in some new directions.

Glenn realized they would have to step up their game if the company was going to generate enough revenue to support the two new partners. Glenn asked his brother to focus on developing new products. Glenn recalls saying: "Pull out all the stops. Whatever it takes, just make the best bread you can."

The recipe Dave created was so good, he called it “killer.” “I just thought man, this is a killer bread.”

The extra helpings of seeds and organic ingredients gave the bread a distinctive flavor that immediately caught people’s attention. As the workers in the factory tasted it they all got excited and at that point the brothers decided to test it with consumers at the local Portland Farmer’s Market.

They took a couple of hundred loaves to sell at a booth and Dave says, “People just flipped out.” He says Dave’s Killer Bread was getting all the attention at the market and that’s when they realized they had a hit. Shobi remembers being completely shocked by the initial response. “I definitely wasn't prepared for the reaction that we got there.”

After a few more weeks of testing the market, the three decided to launch the brand. They put Dave’s picture on the wrapper, called it, "Dave’s Killer Bread" and printed his whole story on the back of the label. It was a story that the customers found very moving.

“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," Dave says on the label. "A whole lotta suffering has transformed an ex-con into an honest man who is doing his best to make the world a better place."

“It’s a great story, It's a story of redemption, like the Prodigal Son. It's a story that people love hearing. And they love to be part of the success.”

One group, however, did not love the story. That was the marketing group hired by the Dahl brothers to help launch the brand. “The marketing agency that we were working with at the time,” says Dave, “told us it was a terrible idea. ‘Don’t do it, don't put the word "killer" in your bread. And, whatever you do, don't put the story of Dave’s criminal history on the back. Don't ruin a great product with that kind of marketing.'”

After hearing this advice, the brothers walked out of the meeting and decided to fire their advisers.

Charlena Miller, a local Portand storyteller and marketing consultant who specializes in helping businesses tell their stories, says she can understand that marketing team’s response: “I can really see how a marketing team might have a problem with the name “Killer,” particularly when you’re advertising a food product made by somebody who's an ex-felon.”

On the other hand, however, Miller also recognized the power of a story about redemption. “The challenge then is how do you take that story and really focus on the positive aspects of it, (of) which there are so many,” She says, adding the Dahl brothers had good instincts to put the story on the bread.

Customers seem to agree. The bread is not only being sold in little health food stores but has gone mainstream with distribution in regional Costco stores and other large chains.

Dave says the success of the product and brand has swung the whole company around to a new identity. And Glenn says it's taken an old, stodgy, family business and moved it into a much bigger league: “In just a few years we’ve gone from 23 employees to over 120.”

For Dave, the economic success is very satisfying but does not compare to the personal satisfaction of what he’s accomplished: “I touched people's lives with my bread. It couldn't be much better than this, to be honest with you."