Fresh From Prison, a Brother Rejoins the Family Bread Business
The worst of it came in 1989, when Dave Dahl, freshly sprung from prison and strung out on crystal meth once again, returned to his family's brotherhood of the bread business in Portland, Oregon. Since 1955, the Dahls had operated a health-food company called NatureBake. Dave wanted to help out in the artisan crafting of organic whole-grain bread.
Dave was 26 then and already well into a 20-year criminal career that would see him convicted for six felonies, including assault, prison escape, delivery of a controlled substance, and armed robbery. He kept a sawed-off shotgun in his trench coat and often stowed several ounces of meth under the hood of his car. In mug shots, he oozed menace, looking straight at the camera, all grimace and lantern jaw. He was a big guy—6 feet tall and ripped. In time, he would bench 335 in the joint. His older brother, Glenn, says he still regards him as "an extremely imposing figure. He can be very scary when he gets mad."
But still Glenn, who had recently bought NatureBake from his aging dad, had always given Dave shelter. Years earlier, when Dave was a sullen, acned teen, he had lived in Glenn's house. He tried to kill himself once, emptying Glenn's medicine cabinet of pills; Glenn consoled him and invited him back to work the next day. Now, Glenn took another chance. He hired Dave to mix dough. But within a week—after Dave showed up high, and after he got in a fight on the bakery floor—they had a confrontation, and Dave quit.
Dave took vengeance. He sneaked over to Glenn's house and forced his way in, calming the dogs by feeding them meat. "I stole a pistol," he remembers. "I broke a dresser and a locked cabinet. I wanted him to know it was me wrecking his house."
Glenn knew. For years, he had contended with this hellion kid brother, this problem relation who would just float into the picture whenever he wanted to rain havoc on the family business—and to rip at Glenn's heart.
Now it was 2004, and Dave was getting out of prison again. Glenn went through the same painful calculations. Dave was an absurd risk; he had to shut the door on him. But Dave was a brother, too. Glenn decided to give him one last chance.
That December, when Dave came out of prison again, Glenn picked him up at the Greyhound station in Portland, took him home, and gave him back his job. Now, four and a half years later, the strangest thing has happened: Dave Dahl is somehow a celebrity and the driving force behind a wildly successful brand.
Perhaps you have heard of Dave's Killer Bread. Organic and free of genetically modified organisms, it sells for more than $5 a loaf and comes in 14 varieties, among them Blues Bread, which is rich in blue cornmeal; Good Seed, which is crunchy-thick with flax and sunflower seeds; and the long, skinny Peace Bomb. On each bag, there's a cartoon of a buff, longhaired Dave playing his electric guitar and a confessional note in which Dave speaks of finding peace after 15 "long and lonely" years in prison. He healed, he writes, by "practicing my guitar, exercising, and getting to know myself -- without drugs. A whole lot of suffering 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."
Dave introduced his bread in August 2005. He drafted a few recipes and then took 100 loaves to a farmers' market in Portland. In crunchy Oregon, amid a mounting nationwide taste for all things organic, Dave's Bread, as it was first called, was a safe gambit and a modest one, until Dave threw the word Killer onto the label. Then, it was as though he had stepped into the shoes of Paul Newman. The Portland media lavished him with press. The families of ex-cons wrote Dave heartfelt letters. Women lined up at supermarket demos, hungry for a glimmering moment with the bad boy turned sweetie pie.
Today, NatureBake sells 35,000 loaves of DKB every week, in health-food stores and grocery chains primarily in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. NatureBake, which for decades grew at a steady 10 percent per annum, has almost quadrupled its revenue since 2005. It is now a $12 million-a-year company, with 83 employees and a brand-new account with Costco. In the spring of 2008, it moved to a new, 52,000-square-foot bakery—more than three times the size of its old home. Out in the parking lot is a fleet of delivery trucks that bear a picture of Dave dressed in baker's whites and beaming as he stands beside a black wall ruler. "Dave's Best Lineup Yet!" reads the text.
The myth for sale is that Dave's redemption is glorious and total—that all the bad karma has been baked away in the aromatic and goodly ovens. But does it really work that way in real life, in families?
When Dave and Glenn sit together in Glenn's corner office at NatureBake, there's a sense that the past has not fully receded. Their faces look very similar—broad, with the same craggy nose and the same Nordic pallor—and it's not hard to envision a time three decades back when Glenn was the big brother teaching Dave how to play quarters. There were many years after that with almost no communication between the brothers, followed by a period of regular fights and reconciliations—and now this stable period. Glenn, who is 55, with tousled white hair and a placid, gnomelike grin, sits behind his desk, speaking quietly. Dave, who's 46, sits off to the side in a visitor's chair, his hulking forearms crossed as he exudes an athlete's alert, kinetic presence.
"And after you robbed my house," says Glenn, piecing together the past, "you took off to Massachusetts."
"Yeah," says Dave. "I drove this stolen van that got, like, seven miles to the gallon. I think the owners were glad to see it go."
Both brothers laugh—once, tautly—and then, for a second, it's quiet. You can hear the ticking of the lighting system overhead.
NatureBake was started, in 1955, by James Dahl, a onetime Navy sailor who had been raised a Seventh Day Adventist, and his wife, Wanene. James was, in his own estimation, a "blockheaded Norwegian." He got angry in the bakery sometimes, throwing pots and pans at the wall, and if anyone dared insult his two loves—the church and the American flag—he went ballistic. When each of his four kids turned 9, he put the kid to work, paying roughly a dime an hour. "When I was 11 or 12 and my friends invited me on a weekend camping trip," recalls Glenn, "I couldn't go. Sunday was baking day."
In his early 20s, Glenn thought a couple of times about walking away from the bakery—of joining the Air Force and becoming a pilot. But there was a problem: For all his rigidity, James was a sloppy business manager. Often at NatureBake, receipts would end up in the trash and under the ovens. "I knew that if I left," Glenn says, "the business wouldn't last." He bought NatureBake in 1988 and let his dad stick around. The pretense was that James would develop new bread recipes. He never did. Tired and bereft of confidence, he mostly just grumbled, saying things like, "Why did you have to move the salt?"
To Dave, it was pathetic. "I hated my dad," he says. "He was a hypocrite; he never even went to church." Several times, Dave got in shoving matches with his father, who died in 1997. Once, when James was 65 and Dave was 25 and coming off a long meth jag, James shook his son awake, saying, "Go to work." Dave clocked him. "He was down on the ground, saying, 'Stop, stop!' " Dave says, "and I just left and got high."
As a kid, Dave says, "I hated the bakery, and I hated the sissy hairnets we had to wear." He was insular and morose; he had almost no friends. He found catharsis in playing heavy metal on his guitar—Judas Priest, Black Sabbath—but he didn't find true escape until, at age 21, he discovered crystal meth. "That first marvelous injection of poison," he writes on his MySpace page, "jettisoned me into an exciting, depression-free nirvana. For the first time in my life, I had no inhibitions, no worries."
Dave began dealing the stuff and living large. He sold up to a pound of meth a day and carried thick wads of hundreds. He packed a .380 semiautomatic and floated
from woman to woman, fathering a couple of daughters, one of whom—21-year-old Jessica—helps sell DKB at farmers' markets. (Her 24-year-old half-sister rarely talks to her dad.)
"Basically, for a number of years," says Glenn, "he just disappeared." Glenn was concerned, but he kept his distance. There were letters between the brothers and a few phone calls and also the odd, awkward home visits spliced between Dave's four prison bids—like, for instance, the time Dave came to join Glenn's young family for a picnic and blighted the day by getting nabbed shoplifting cigarettes. "It was hard to stay close to him," says Glenn. "I didn't know what to say."
By the late '90s, Dave felt so isolated and so depressed, lying in his cell, that for months he could scarcely sleep. "I thought of cutting my wrists," he says, "but I'd seen guys who'd tried that, only to be carried out on a stretcher and 'saved.' "
Finally, in desperation, Dave talked to a psychologist. He began taking antidepressants, and he enrolled in a drafting program. He excelled; he began teaching other inmates. "For the first time ever," he says, "I felt good about myself without drugs. I was developing a skill. I started feeling like I can do whatever I set out to do.
"I was having these nightmares then, and in them I'd slipped. I'd just killed someone—I didn't know why—and I was hiding out. But the cops were onto me; my life was over. It was the most dreaded situation, but then, blessedly, I'd wake up and realize I was in prison. And I was happy."
"He did something amazing," says Glenn. "He found a way to be free in prison, and when I visited him, he had dreams for his life. For the first time, he wasn't blaming people."
Dave entered a six-month drug rehab program for inmates. The two brothers talked about working together again, and Dave imagined a time of pure fun and camaraderie. Glenn, meanwhile, had a calmer hope. "I just wanted to hire him," he says, "so he could settle into civilian life."
But three weeks after Dave came home, Glenn left his wife of 20 years. He moved out of his suburban home into a spare apartment in Portland. Dave felt stung: "I wondered, Why didn't Glenn tell me he was going to do that? Why did I even come back to the bakery? I felt resentment toward Glenn."
But Glenn didn't have time to salve his brother's wounds. He had to reinvent his business. Partly, NatureBake needed to grow, to make room for Dave and for Glenn's son, Shobi, who was about to finish college and join the company. But mostly, the brand lacked pizzazz. It was uncool; it was for graybeards. "No young people knew who we were," says Glenn, "unless they were deeply immersed in organic culture."
When Glenn went to the grocery store one day, he says, "I didn't see anybody with tattoos or piercings picking up our bread." He yearned to reach the alternative crowd, so he envisioned a new brand—and talked to Dave. "What about a picture of you with your guitar, right on the bag? What if we sell your prison past?"
"It was magic," says Dave. "Glenn let me tell my story—and also let me make good bread." Indeed, Glenn didn't limit Dave to cheap materials. He saw the organic market becoming ever more gourmet, and he reckoned, If people are willing to pay $6 for a cup of coffee, we sure as heck can sell a $5 loaf of bread. "I told Dave to pull out all the stops," says Glenn. So Dave began concocting the company's most deluxe line of breads ever, replete with organic flour, organic blue cornmeal, and organic cane juice from Paraguay. The in-house catch phrase was, "Good organic ingredients and lots of them."
It's a Friday morning, and Dave is standing by NatureBake's ovens, on a concrete floor slick with the oil of crushed seeds. He's tweedling at his BlackBerry as he eyes a rack full of Good Seed. With his Celtic-knot tattoo jutting out from one of the cutoff sleeves of his white shirt, he looks badass, even in a hairnet. And he exudes a burly ease as he strolls through the plant. "All right, all right," he says, plucking a chunk of dough out of the mixer to size up how much it has risen. "Cool."
He passes a couple of line workers dividing huge mounds of dough into loaves by hand. "I can do that job twice as fast as anyone here," he says.
Outside, in the break area, he holds court, smoking. Two guys at the picnic table are felons, and they are sitting down as he stands and paces. The talk is about how hard life is after prison, when nobody wants to rent to you or give you a job, and Dave sort of shines as a savior. "I approached him in the parking lot," says one man, Lewis Starr, "and he gave me an application and a free loaf of bread."
"Realistically," says Dave, "these guys had as much chance of working out as anyone. They're good workers. And this guy's daughter," he adds, pointing, "is hot. I mean, she's smoking hot."
Everyone laughs, and in the six or eight visits I will have with Dave, his warm, shaggy beneficence will win out every time. He's charming, in his own rough way. Still, there's a storm brewing inside him. His life is not settled, and at times he will soliloquize almost absent-mindedly, like a teenager trying to piece together who exactly he is. "My relationships with women," he tells me, "that's a problem. I've been away from women so long, you know, and all these women have had all these different experiences. I'm on a totally different wavelength." His last girlfriend was a 27-year-old onetime topless dancer who approached him at the bakery. "I'm just not mate material," he says. "If it lasts more than two days with a girl, I gotta go. I don't need anybody -- and I get tired of people saying, 'Why don't you listen to my bellyaching?' I've already suffered. I don't want to be around somebody who's still going through it. I'm into what I'm doing."
When Dave got going on his own line of bread, back in 2005, he worked 100 hours a week; he tweaked recipes and supervised crews. Dave wanted whole shifts of workers to transition to making his bread; he wanted the marketing people to get DKB into more stores. "I needed an organization around me," he says, "but people were hesitant. I was just another guy scrambling for power, and I think they felt that if they listened to me, that would be disloyal to Glenn. I fought and I fought and I fought to build up a team. I wanted to get the bread out there, but that first year, I was all alone. I'd come back from the farmers' markets, where I was getting all this love, and people would be whispering about me. They were thinking, Who is this drug addict to tell me how to do my job? He's doing great things, but how long before he starts using again?"
The worst conflicts were with Shobi, who was given the job of designing the labels for the Killer Bread bags. Dave hovered over his nephew's computer. "That looks good," he would say, "but move that Good Seed logo just a little bit that way."
"Yeah? Why don't you just do it yourself?" said Shobi.
"We were at each other's throats," Shobi says now. "Finally, I just told him to fuck off." For weeks, the two men stayed up late, sending each other brutal and exactingly detailed e-mails. Shobi composed a list of 15 complaints about Dave. "You are incapable of intelligent conversation that does not involve yelling," he wrote. "You wear cutoffs and sleeveless clothes in the bakery…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.…You are not going to change, and I am not going to change. In the end, it's either going to be you or me."
Dave called Shobi's attacks lies. But he agreed that they couldn't work together. "A herd of camels would graze for a lifetime in the eye of a needle first," he wrote.
Meanwhile, NatureBake's assembly line convulsed as it tried to crank out Killer Bread. The dough was so thick with seeds that it didn't quite hold together. Loaves didn't rise sufficiently. Sometimes they reached the slicing machine in odd, oblong blobs that had to be tossed—a disaster, for already Killer Bread was yielding a razor-thin profit margin (thanks to the expensive seeds), and NatureBake was in trouble.
The company's move would end up costing $2.2 million, after renovations. And NatureBake's organic wheat costs were skyrocketing, thanks in part to rising Chinese demand and droughts in Brazil and Australia. In the early days of DKB, the company paid about $11 for a 50-pound sack; in 2008, the price leapt to $39. (It now hovers at about $25.) Glenn, who is the bakery's sole owner, was losing sleep. "My name's on the bottom line of every loan," he says. "If this place goes down, I'm penniless. I'm done."
Glenn was preoccupied, and when Dave wrote to complain about Shobi, his brother blew him off. "I can't fix this," Glenn wrote in one e-mail. Dave was furious. "There was no violence," Glenn says now, "but he was a fraction of an inch away from it. I could see it in his eyes, in his body posture. He'd come into my office, and he'd just be beside himself. He'd stand over my desk, shaking and shouting. I tried to stay calm—that was the only way I knew to keep him from escalating. Then, we'd go back to our corners and try to stay out of each other's way. We'd e-mail each other. It was no way to run a company."
The three partners—Glenn had given his brother and son equity in 2007—began meeting with a family-business counselor. They did roughly a dozen sessions, some up to three hours long, and they all emerged feeling cleansed.
"I started with mistrust," says Dave. "I figured that Shobi was nothing but a little brain who hated his cowboy uncle. But then Shobi said, 'When I was in college, all I wanted was to get out and work with my dad and you.' I broke down. I was like, 'OK, Shobi's human.' "
"We came up with better boundaries, better job definitions," says Shobi. "And we hired an operations manager, too, to streamline things." The company improved the margin on DKB by buying flour in larger volumes and producing larger batches of bread.
"We're doing a lot better now," Glenn tells me one morning when I meet with just him. "I don't think we would have made it without help." He goes on to talk in kind tones about his brother. "Dave rocked our establishment," he says, "but we needed that. We needed his creativity, his energy."
Glenn hopes that, over the next five years, NatureBake can triple its sales of Killer Bread, to better than 100,000 loaves per week, largely by penetrating the still scarcely tapped Seattle market. He believes that Dave can stay clean. "It's been 10 years," Glenn says. "But if he did relapse? The company would suffer, tremendously. Even if we kept it secret, we'd lose his creativity. Morale would go down. I'd do everything I could to stop that from happening. We'd get help -- therapy, whatever was needed.
"Dave's a good guy," Glenn continues, "and I was probably just too headstrong at times dealing with him. I should have listened, even when he wasn't patient."
"Glenn." Dave shakes his head with disdain. "Glenn—Glenn just doesn't get it. I wasn't patient? Right! Glenn doesn't even understand what we were fighting about. People just didn't want to help me do my job. It was like, 'It's Dave's bread. Let him do the damn work.' "
Dave is in his apartment now, on the couch, hunched forward, hands on his knees. "I can't figure Glenn out," he continues. "I mean, we grew up together, and then I went to prison, and I feel like I looked at life from so many different angles. I had so many different experiences, and then I come back to the bakery, and it's almost like—" Dave throws his head to the side, miffed. "Oh, I can't go there. We still butt heads. In any company, you're going to have people who can't stand each other; they just make it work. But these people are my family. I have to do more than stand them. I have to love them."
Now, Dave gets up and pads across the aqua shag carpet of his living room to fetch a beer out of the fridge. Aside from a StairMaster in the corner, the place is nearly naked—almost no furniture, nothing on the walls. It's basic. It's just a two-bedroom he's renting for $900 a month, after living for a spell with Melanie, the ex-dancer. (A short while later, he will buy his first house.)
When he comes back, Dave picks up his acoustic guitar and plays, leaning back, his eyes asquint with ardor. "Everybody's telling me about Jesus," goes the first song, "sanctimonious sisters/ pedophile priests/ prepubescent pissers."
The next song is vengeful—"I'm gonna draw blood/ I'm gonna break bones"—and then Dave gets plaintive and blue, singing, "I don't even have the strength to cry/ I don't even have a heart/ How many times have I caused someone grief?/ How many hearts have I broke?/ Just leave me alone with my guitar/ Because if I make it, it's gonna be…/ Because of the music in me." There are no songs without anguish in them. "I just haven't gotten to a new place with my music yet," Dave explains.
After a while, we go out to the patio area behind Dave's apartment so he can smoke a couple of cigarettes as dusk falls. "I guess Glenn and I are still figuring out how to deal with each other," he says, almost dreamily. "You're always figuring things out—that's life."
We sit there in the darkness a few minutes more, hearing the whoosh of cars on the freeway nearby, and Dave keeps talking. "We're going to start making things happen in the Idaho market," he promises. There's an edge to his voice sometimes, a certain hunger, and you know that his old demons are still rattling inside him somewhere. But at times, he is quiet. He is ruminative. He sits there in a halo of smoke, saying nothing, looking weary, like a prizefighter who has just stepped out of the ring after a long, bruising battle to realize anew the sweetness of everyday life.
He smokes. He gazes serenely off into the distance. He seems happy. You want it to last.
Bill Donahue is a writer who lives in Portland, Oregon.