Most of the time the launch of a mainland bread selling at a big box retailer in Hawaii wouldn’t be news, especially considering all the bread created in our local island bakeries. But when Oregonian Dave Dahl announced that his Killer Bread will be selling at Costco, I had to bite.
Sure, his Killer Bread is tasty–so much so it has a huge following in his home state of Oregon that is spreading to other West Coast states–but the road Dahl took to becoming a bread mogul was unusual. His journey began during the 15 years he spent in prison for methamphetamine use, robbery and related charges. After his release, he joined the family bread business, which had started in 1955.
Putting the past behind them, Dahl jumped in and started baking. He set his sights on creating the ultimate bread using organic ingredients. He credits getting his depression under control for letting him focus on his bread making, but what happened next nobody could have predicted.
Taking his loaves to the local Portland Farmers Market and hawking it with his brother Glenn’s son Shobi, they knew on the first day that they had a hit. Soon they were asked to join the market permanently.
As the company workforce quickly rose from 35 to 270, Dahl realized he also had an opportunity to change the lives of others. Today, 30 percent of his employees are convicted felons.
I recently got the chance to speak with Dahl:
MAUITIME: What sets Dave’s Killer Bread apart from other bread normally found in a grocery store?
DAVE DAHL: When I developed the first few “Killer Bread” varieties, I wasn’t thinking about cost—only that I had to make the tastiest, seediest, chewiest whole-grain bread possible. The result is a product whose flavor and mouth feel are exceptional. It’s the Cadillac of organic, whole-grain breads. You can’t make bread like this for cheap.
MT: Does the production of your bread (baking process, mixing, etc.) include any special steps?
DD: Killer Breads are tough to make. The formulation and unique nuances of the product (whole-grain dough with lots of “dead weight” in the form of cracked and rolled grains and lots of seeds) requires special skill and attention on mixing, processing, and adjusting recipes daily. A lot of our process is not automated, because this bread needs the “human factor” to make it successful. There are real people whose hands and care are responsible for every loaf of Killer Bread.
MT: How do you get the ideas for your new bread varieties, and which is your favorite?
DD: All new bread ideas come from the same place: to make the best bread on the market using the finest ingredients. Many of our fans are competitive athletes, so I’m working on a new variety catered to this audience that will be high in protein and low in calories. My ideas usually start with a name. Blues Bread was the first (named for a passion of mine, Blues music—and given a blue tint with the addition of blue corn). My favorite is Good Seed, so named for my own transformation from “drug loser to bread winner,” and my love of giving back.
MT: What do you think is the best way to eat your bread?
DD: I love making sandwiches, but you can pretty much do anything with my bread, from French toast to stuffing to bread crumbs. If you look at our Facebook page (facebook.com/daveskillerbread), you’ll see that everyone seems to have their own creative variations.
MT: What’s the story behind your brand design (comics, logo, art style)?
DD: We had a shoestring budget at the start of DKB in 2005. We found a bright, young (and broke, like I was) cartoonist who I worked with very closely to craft whimsical, cute (often meaningful) artwork, which clearly has been instrumental to the brand’s identity. He still works for us today.
MT: Why did you hate making bread earlier in life, and why do you love it now?
DD: I had a lot of personal demons when I was a young man, which led me down a self-destructive path of drugs and crime. At that time, baking bread or being a part of the family business didn’t appeal to me. I had little self-esteem and turned to drugs, crime and imprisonment for decades. Discovering the concepts of humility and acceptance, subsequent mental health treatment (anti-depressants) and meaningful higher education (computer-aided drafting/design) while still in prison helped me to see I could do most anything I set my mind to within reason. I could have applied the principles to digging ditches and cleaning toilets if that’s where I had to start.
Fortunately, I saw an opportunity to return to the family bread business and make a mark, using the same basic principles of product design that I learned drafting in prison. The passion, desire to work hard (about 80 hours a week) and make something cool happen, and understanding of my unique situation (including where I had been and how I had overcome it) all added up to a successful business. It’s really important for me to point out that financial “success” was never a driver. I was successful in my mind already, before I even made the first loaf of bread.
MT: What would you say to your younger self if you had the chance?
DD: I would say: Don’t be subject to peer pressure. Love yourself for who you are right now, and work hard to get better. Humility is strength. Enjoy the journey, no matter how tough it gets. Never run away. Always face every challenge. Try meds for the depression. I don’t know if I would have listened, but I hope that others do!
MT: What’s the mission you’re trying to accomplish with the business?
DD: Dave’s Killer Bread is very much a vision-driven company. Quite simply, our vision is to make the world a better place, one loaf of bread at a time. To this end, we strive to be a positive force in the community, as well as create a respectful and enjoyable place for our employees to work. More specifically, I want to inspire others to do similar things to turn their lives around. I’m selfish–I live here, so I want my world to be a better place (which begins with me). I speak to countless groups of high schoolers, businesspeople, college students, prisoners… you name it, simply telling my story. Our company has given back in many, many ways, including employing ex-felons, who make up about one third of our 270-member force. All of our giving back seems to come back to us 10-fold.
MT: What’s the price of your bread at Costco on Maui?
DD: Right now, Costco is selling a two-pack of our 21 Whole Grains bread for $9.29.
DAVE’S KILLER BREAD
(Additional research by Oliver de Silva.)