Everyone seems to know Dave’s Killer Bread, America’s best-selling organic bread — but not necessarily how it got its name.
Dave, uncle to Shobi Dahl ’05, was experimenting with new bread recipes at the family bakery business shortly after his release from a 15-year prison sentence. One recipe really impressed him, so he scribbled “KILLER” on the bag he’d put it in.
Everyone agreed with his assessment, and what they had considered calling “Dave’s Bread” got more interesting.
The company’s marketing agency thought the name was terrible and advised scrapping it. Instead, the company fired the agency — and made millions of dollars with Dave’s Killer Bread.
Dahl worked for Dave’s Killer Bread, first in marketing and then as CEO, from 2005–15, when the company was sold. Even now, as he explores new ventures in the food and drink industry, he feels close to the brand — and proud of its efforts to provide people with much-needed second chances.
The multi-million-dollar business began modestly in 1955, when Dahl’s grandfather opened the tiny, one-man operation Midway Bakery in southwest Portland. “He was a fantastic baker and a terrible businessman,” Dahl says. “My grandmother had an accounting degree, and she kept it moving.”
As a result, Dahl’s dad, uncles and aunt grew up working hard at the bakery, which was renamed NatureBake in 1988 when Dahl’s dad, Glenn, took over. When Dave’s Killer Bread started in 2005, the company was a top bread supplier for Trader Joe’s in the Northwest, but it hadn’t exactly rocketed to stardom in the baking world.
“After I graduated from Willamette, Dave worked on recipes and I worked on marketing and packaging,” Dahl says. “August 4, 2005, was the first day we sold a loaf of Dave’s Killer Bread, and it changed everything.”
A mission rises
In fact, the new bread didn’t just improve the company’s fortunes — it profoundly altered lives. Today, Dave’s Killer Bread is known not just for the product in the bag, but also for its practice of hiring so many men and women with criminal records — just like Dave. This wasn’t a carefully plotted plan, either; it came about naturally over time, and Dahl and the others simply embraced it.
“The family always had open hiring policies that focused on choosing the best person for the job, regardless of background,” Dahl says. “When we put Dave’s story on the back of the packaging, we just naturally got more people applying who had criminal backgrounds.
“One day we realized a third of our employees had criminal backgrounds, and we thought, ‘This is something we can talk about.’ We also realized that by being willing to hire people with these backgrounds, we had access to great employees other companies were openly discriminating against.”
According to the company, a quarter of Americans have a criminal record, which makes them 50 percent less likely to get a callback or a job offer. As a result, many are forced to resort to their previous life of crime.
At Dave’s Killer Bread, they can find work, from entry-level jobs to management positions. In addition, Dave’s Killer Bread set up a foundation to help other businesses adopt a similar approach. Its Second Chance Project also invites people to express their support or submit a personal story. Long-term, the goal is to reduce what the foundation calls “the negative effect of recidivism in America.”
Dahl has used his experience with the company to advocate for people who get shunned because of their background. He asks: “Should a person be judged entirely by the worst single thing they’ve done?”
He’s also inspired by an important business lesson he absorbed at Willamette. In his favorite course, the longstanding business simulation run by economics professor Don Negri, Dahl and his team constantly had to figure things out on their own, usually under grueling pressure.
“So, ask people you trust for help,” Dahl says. “One of the reasons we were successful at Dave’s Killer Bread was we learned not to be afraid of that.”
This article was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Willamette magazine as part of a larger article, “The GOOD food and drink guide: Alumni serve up satisfying fare — and solutions for social issues.” Erik Schmidt is a freelance writer in Denver.