Glenn Dahl was taking an absurd risk in letting his younger brother Dave—recovering addict, six-time felon—back into his life and business
Dave Dahl, the bad seed. Could there be a less likely candidate to revive a 50-year-old family business?
STRONG STUFF Dave has come up with 14 varieties of his signature bread. And the black sheep is now the face of the business.
Glenn Dahl, the steady hand
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."
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