Former convict bakes up a growing bread business

Former convict bakes up a growing bread business
Dave Dahl greets another fan of "Dave's Killer Bread" during a recent appearance in Bend, Ore. All photos by Bend Bulletin staff photographer Ryan Brennecke.

BEND, Ore. (AP) – Dave Dahl's story of redemption, from meth addict and convicted armed robber to successful baker and creator of Dave's Killer Bread, inspired area residents to line up at a Bend grocery store recently to meet him, shake his hand and sample his bread.

At Newport Avenue Market on Saturday, Dahl, 47, autographed free copies of Dave's Killer Bread coloring and activity books, which depict his life story from depressed boy to criminal and through a redemption that began while serving a 118-month sentence at the Snake River Correctional Facility in Ontario.

"People initially buy my bread because they are drawn by my story, but once they taste it they keep coming back for more because it is so healthy and tastes so good," Dahl said.

One of Dahl's loafs, "Good Seed," reflects the change in his self-image from that of bad seed to good seed.

His motivation to create the most nutritious bread possible was to do something good for the world to make up for the bad things he'd done.

His motto - "Just say no to bread on drugs" - reflects his commitment to make certified organic bread using organically grown whole grains, seeds and other natural ingredients. Dave's Killer Bread is made in Milwaukie at Nature Bake, the family bakery founded by his father in 1955.

Dahl began baking bread at age 9, after school and during summers. He worked at the bakery into adulthood, until his drug use forced his father to fire him.

A burglary he committed to pay for meth and crack cocaine earned Dahl his first nine-month prison sentence in 1986 at age 23, he said Saturday, between signing autographs.

Still driven by his craving for meth and crack cocaine, he committed armed robbery and served nearly five years, 1989 to 1994.

A few months after his release, Dahl was convicted of his third felony - second degree robbery, and returned to prison for another two years, from 1994 to 1996.

He was out barely a year when he was arrested again, this time for dealing meth and assaulting police officers, which earned him a mandatory minimum sentence of 118 months, according to Dahl.

"When I assaulted the police, I did it because I didn't want to live. I wanted to die right there in the street," Dahl said.

About four years into that sentence, he realized his drug addiction had robbed him of his youth and taken away everything he ever cared about in life.

"For me, what changed my outlook was that I had suffered so much," Dahl said. "I finally reached the point where I wanted to change more than I wanted to do drugs.

"I'd known for a long time I was on the wrong path, but I didn't really see any opportunity to change," Dahl said. "I was suicidal most of the time in prison.

"I finally went to a physician's assistant, who prescribed antidepressant medication that helped me to not go down the negative roads in my mind," Dahl said. "He started me on Paxil, and that worked pretty well, but I still had a lot of anxiety, so he changed the prescription to Effexor, and that made all the difference."

With the depression and anxiety finally under control, Dahl said he was able to think more clearly and stay focused on his goal of building a new life.

As his attitude and behavior improved, Dahl earned the opportunity to participate in what he called meaningful education programs in prison, completing drafting classes.

"Between the medication and the drafting classes, it helped me realize I could still do whatever I wanted to do if I set my mind on it," Dahl said.

Dahl had already spent nearly half his adult life in prison when he was released 30 months early in 2004 and returned to the family bakery.

His family saw the change in him and offered him a job at an entry-level baker's pay of $12 an hour, along with the promise that if he stayed drug-free, he'd get the opportunity to earn back a share of the bakery.

That's when Dahl discovered his passion for baking and created the recipe that launched Dave's Killer Bread.

"People who buy my bread already know my story. It's printed right there on the label, along with my picture," Dahl said.

He said people like to hang out and talk when he visits places like Newport Avenue Market to promote his bread.

Jim and Lois Jorgensen, of Bend, said they first tasted Dave's Killer Bread at a Saturday market at Portland State University a couple of years ago. They fell in love with the bread, and with Dahl's story.

"I was always calling it Killer Dave's bread, but my husband looked up his biography online and found out he is not really a killer, but he does make killer bread," said Lois Jorgensen.

The Jorgensens stood in line to meet Dahl and get his autograph on his coloring book, which has a message designed to keep kids off drugs and steer them toward a healthy lifestyle, such as eating his whole-grain organic breads.

"Dave's story is a wonderful story of redemption," Jim Jorgensen said. "I think it shows that anybody inside prison, or outside of prison, can still go far.

"Dave got off drugs and turned his life around, and in addition to that, he found an unmet need for his premium-quality organic bread. He is an extremely productive member of society, and he is creating jobs for people in his community."

Since Dahl created Dave's Killer Bread in 2005, employment at his family's bakery has grown from around 35 to 280. Many of those employees are former prison inmates getting a second chance like he did, earning $12 an hour as entry-level bakers.

Today, in addition to the Newport Avenue Market, Dave's Killer Bread is sold at Costco, Fred Meyer, Whole Foods and many other supermarkets, grocery stores and farmers markets in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Utah and Alaska. Dahl said production at the family bakery is approaching 250,000 loaves a week.

The ingredients that Dahl says make his breads unique and super-nutritious include amaranth, barley, black sesame seeds, blue cornmeal, bran, brown rice, buckwheat, cereal grain, flax, fruit juice, millet, oats, Omega 3, poppy seed, pumpkin seed, sea salt, rye, sesame seed, spelt, sunflower seed, triticale, walnut and yellow cornmeal.

During his appearance in Bend, Dahl said his bread doesn't compete with the many artisan bakers in the Bend area.

"We make a different kind of bread, and we're marketing it in six states," Dahl said. "I don't believe we're taking anything away from the local bakers."

The coloring books he autographed at Newport Avenue Market illustrate his struggle with depression, which he believes made him vulnerable to the escape he sought in illegal drugs.

Dahl said his drug addiction is one thing he had in common with 80 percent of prison inmates who list drugs and alcohol addictions as factors contributing to the felonies that landed them in prison.

Based on his own experience, Dahl believes allowing inmates to get drug treatment, and to earn the right to participate in meaningful educational programs, are the keys to helping them turn their lives around, and reducing recidivism the rate at which ex-cons return to prison.

"They need something meaningful. They need something to get passionate about, a reason to say, 'Hey, I get to get up in the morning and do this,'" Dahl said.

"Guys like me have this (The) Sopranos' mentality," Dahl said, referring to the HBO TV show. "We need something to replace the ego boost you get from being a knucklehead," Dahl said.

"You need to make it so they earn it by being good for a couple years in prison," he said. "Don't make it easy for anybody. It has to start with accountability. They have to prove they can follow the rules, then you give it to them."

Today, in addition to making what the Jorgensens and many others believe is the best-tasting, healthiest organically certified bread around, Dahl takes time to give back by speaking to prison groups, at high schools and other venues around Oregon.

When Dahl speaks before prison groups, he talks from experience about the pitfalls of loving family members who enable drug addicts and their criminal activity.

"When you give them a place to stay and food to eat, they are thinking, 'Now I have more money I can put toward getting dope,'" Dahl said. "How much love can you give them? Where does love stop and enabling begin?"

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)