David Dahl wasn’t quite himself that day. The cofounder of Dave’s Killer Bread was on sabbatical from the multimillion-dollar Milwaukie, Oregon–based company, but his time away from work had done more harm than good. “Those witnessing his behavior were becoming increasingly concerned,” a court document reads. “Mr. Dahl was fixated on a theme of peace, love, and enlightenment, identifying himself with Jesus and Buddha.”
On November 14, 2013, just before 11:30 a.m. PT, an employee of Dave’s Killer Bread made a call to the police. Dave recalls loitering outside the company building, striking up conversations with employees walking by and enjoying a cigarette. Then he noticed it, through the window: a familiar silhouette, a reflection of everything that had put him on sabbatical in the first place.
“We have an employee who is in the front of our parking lot and he is physically intimidating customers in our store. … We’re very scared. He’s a danger to himself and others,” the voice told the 911 dispatcher. The connection is slightly staticky — the sound equivalent of a shaky handheld camera.
“What’s this employee’s name?”
“Dave Dahl. … He’s a big man. He’s a bigger guy.”
“How tall is he?”
“He’s gotta be 6 feet, but he’s pretty strong. … He’s having, like, a breakdown. He’s sitting in his car, but he’s been in and out. He’s an employee here — he’s the founder of the company. … He went into the store and he smashed a cutout, a life-size cutout of himself, because he’s a symbol of the brand, and he’s intimidating employees that are watching him. … Nobody’s hurt. Everybody’s just intimidated.”
Dave had made it to the Bob’s Red Mill headquarters across the street by the time officers got there. He’d parked his Escalade “in the middle of the road like a jackass,” as he tells it, and gone inside to get a cup of coffee. He was sliding into his car when an officer approached him and said he wanted to talk. Dave looked at him and just said, “No.” Then he drove off. Retelling the story, Dave chuckles at the absurdity of his reaction. The officer didn’t follow him. Punching a cardboard cutout of yourself isn’t a crime. Though it is an excellent metaphor.
Today, every time Dahl walks into a grocery store near his home he sees his face in the bread aisle. He sees it everywhere. The Costco near Portland, Oregon, has nearly a full row devoted to the brand’s two-packs. When Dave’s Killer Bread was sold to Flowers Foods for $275 million in 2015, the reach of this once-local bakery expanded considerably. Before the sale, Dave’s was sold in 8,000 stores. Today it can be found in 22,000 and growing — the largest organic bread company in North America.
Dave received $33 million in the sale, but he lost a little of himself in the process.
Seeing his bread in stores is like looking into a fun-house mirror. If you held the image on the bread’s packaging — an illustration of a muscular man with long, black hair and a mustache shredding on a guitar — up to Dave’s face, you could tell it was him. But it might also be the 30-something guy an aisle over, too. This drawing was always a bit of fiction, depicting the baking rockstar Dave the way he wanted to be. More often, he defined himself by the words on the packaging that briefly sum up his life story: He was a “loser,” an “ex-con.” It took a few drafts to get the caricature just right. He told the cartoonist to make the muscles in his arms a little bigger, his face less rough. His hair was drawn black instead of brown, his mustache with a bit more Don Juan flair. The real Dave doesn’t even have a mustache anymore. “It really isn’t me,” Dave shrugs. “The guy on the logo is fictitious.”
When I first meet Dave, he asks if it’s all right for him to have a cigarette. He’s been working since 6:45 a.m. putting his new business together, an African art dealership located inside a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Clackamas County, Oregon. Though he recently opened a boutique in the Pearl District in downtown Portland near the $3 million penthouse he just purchased, the warehouse is in a blue-collar part of town on the outskirts of “keep it weird” Portland. In Clackamas, broken-down cars sit outside broken-down houses while tidy McMansions are installed a block away; this is where Tonya Harding used to skate. In a few hours, Dave has to go to his daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Afterward he’ll probably come right back to work, maybe watch the Blazers. As we talk, he fidgets. At one point he taps an open water bottle against his knee so hard that the liquid flies out of it and onto his pants.
Dave takes a Camel Wide out of his pocket and lights it. It has a strong flavor, which is exactly what he’s after. “As long as I’m going to fuck myself up, I might as well do it right and enjoy it,” he tells me. He pauses. “I’ve gotta quit, by the way.” Alcohol; shooting and dealing meth; robbing homes and convenience stores — he says all that is behind him. But smoking is the one habit he hasn’t broken. For someone who still holds onto remnants of a self-destructive streak, Dave goes to painstaking lengths to keep it self-contained. When he finishes his cigarette, he puts it out, then takes the butt and slides it into his pocket. He never throws them on the ground. He says that if he aims for the trash and misses, he’ll walk over and pick it up. “If there’s another one there already, I’ll pick that one up, too.”
It’s been more than two years since Dave became a multimillionaire and only a little less time since he disappeared from the public eye. “I’ve been avoiding people because I wanted to live my life,” he explains. But he thinks it’s time to get his story out.
That includes the good and the bad: The celebrity status in Portland; the speaking engagements; the evasion of police in 2013, during which he rammed several cop cars; the mysterious death of a friend after a “boys’ night” at Dave’s cabin near Mount Hood. Those who have read only what’s printed on the back of bread packages know none of this. Everyone likes a success story; everyone wants to talk about the guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps, worked hard, and became a multimillionaire. No one wants to see someone achieve all those things and then fall prey to the same problems that haunted them their entire lives. Horatio Alger didn’t rise to prominence crafting those kinds of stories, and neither do advertising agencies. The narrative of Dave’s Killer Bread understandably wasn’t updated to include its cofounder’s fall from grace. And now that the company has been sold and Dave is out of the office, if not entirely out of sight, it has slowly redacted his story from the packaging, one rewrite at a time.
Despite Dave’s divergence from the brand, the cult of Dave’s Killer Bread has continued to expand. It has nearly a million fans on Facebook, and the page is flooded with comments from zealots. “As long as I can afford it and it’s available, I ain’t buying nothing else,” says one. Another confesses, “We tell perfect strangers about it in the bread aisle at our Safeway! They always take our word for it and buy it.” What kind of sliced bread inspires such fervor? Dave’s Killer Bread has become a prism through which people see their own comeback narratives, be it from addiction, or homelessness, or being in abusive relationships. Commenters say that they want to support a company giving chances to other people like them, especially when the bread tastes so damn good. One woman said that she drives to a grocery store 20 miles away — the closest seller — and it’s worth it every time.
In some ways he’s profiting from keeping quiet about his story. The legend of Dave lives on in a multimillion-dollar company he no longer runs, though he has invested some of the $33 million he received in the sale back into the enterprise. But there’s a part of him that wants people to know the real Dave, the one who’s just trying to keep himself in one piece.
Dave was born in 1963 and grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a Protestant denomination that encourages followers to be vegetarian and avoid alcohol, tobacco, and, in some cases, caffeine. His parents, Jim and Wanene, ran a bakery in Southeast Portland. The Dahls were making organic, sprouted-wheat, non-GMO, no-animal-fat bread before there was such a thing as “certified organic” — their faith helped them be ahead of the curve during the ’70s, “when nobody cared” about such labels, as Dave says.
There’s not a lot of money in the bread business, especially not when one store is feeding a family of six. When Dave was born, the Dahls lived in a small, shabby house that he called a shanty. “It was the most run-down house in the neighborhood,” Dave recalls. He and his siblings — a sister and two brothers — worked at the bakery as soon as they were old enough. “Whenever we weren’t in school we were working.” According to Glenn, the eldest sibling, they made 25 cents an hour — five was used to buy clothing, 10 went to pay for school, and the last 10 cents was pocket money.
From one angle, Dave’s childhood appears idyllic: a hardworking, all-American family living and toiling together in a bakery just a half mile from their home. But from the beginning, it seemed, Dave was the bad seed. He grew distant from the church that was so important to his family and almost everyone he knew. He was depressed, suicidal, had trouble making friends. “Screw everybody,” Dave remembers thinking. “Nobody gives a fuck about me, so why should I care about them?”
Often Dave would get into fights, bad ones that left physical evidence all over his body. “When I drank, I drank like a fish. I was driving. I didn’t know any better,” he says. The morning of his junior-year finals he woke up in a jail cell bloody, covered in cuts.
After a few years of not-so-scientific experimentation with illicit drugs, he started taking methamphetamine in his early 20s. Dave doesn’t remember exactly when or where he tried meth for the first time. What he does remember is that the feeling was unlike anything he’d experienced before. Finally, he was functioning the way he’d always wanted to. He could talk to people and felt confident; life didn’t feel quite so heavy. “I was like, Everyone should be doing this — this is amazing.” The new confidence got him odd jobs; the meth (and his attitude while he was high on it) got him fired. When selling drugs wasn’t enough, he would steal. First it was car stereos and a two-man operation to shoplift Nintendo games from the local mega-mart to resell on the street (Dave was the getaway driver). By 22, he was a full-fledged criminal.
He was a pretty lousy one, too. One of Dave’s main sources of income throughout those young adult years came from robbing houses and convenience stores, a means of feeding his burgeoning drug habit. One of his four prison sentences came after he was caught stealing a $12.99 cellphone accessory. That cost him a year. He was arrested time and time again. “I really suck at crime. My heart’s not in it,” he says with a sheepish smile.
The robberies began to blur together. He stole, got caught, went to prison, got out, hit repeat: “The arrests were happening like clockwork almost.” And because most of his sentences were plea deals covering multiple charges, Dave is fuzzy on the details of how many crimes he actually committed. Now 55, he was behind bars for more than a quarter of his life. The last time he went in, in 1998, the charges included assault, and possession and delivery/manufacture of a controlled substance.
Dave remembers serving his final sentence, before the transformation that would change his life. “I was 38 years old, in prison, suicidal, trying to figure out a way to kill myself that would work,” he says. In prison, plenty of people around him were trying to die. He cringes while describing people who tried to cut their own throats, but were saved just in time. “You have to run around with scars, and that didn’t work for me,” Dave says. That’s when he had his “great epiphany”: He had no choice but to somehow make his life worth living. It took weeks for him to work up the courage to ask for help. He filled out what essentially amounted to an SOS, and dropped it in the kite box. Then he waited. In most prisons, written requests are commonly known as kites, though no one seems to know where the term came from. The image of kites flying pleas for help through the prison system is as beautiful as it is fantastic. But whatever the slang term’s origin, in prison these scraps of paper can change lives. Dave was prescribed an antidepressant by a physician’s assistant, though he isn’t sure whether he was ever diagnosed with depression. Nevertheless, the antidepressant worked.
Transformations are funny things. There isn’t always a “come to Jesus” moment or a helpful friend who tells someone exactly what they need to hear to make them Do The Right Thing. Sometimes people just change. Lives can be bleak and small and sad, and then they can expand.
“Everything started working better,” Dave says of the end of his time in prison, shortly after he filled out that kite. “I started playing guitar and learning quicker.” Maybe it was the medication that changed everything; maybe it was nothing more than finally asking for help.
Dave was released from prison on December 27, 2004. Dave’s older brother Glenn, who ran NatureBake, the family bakery, saw that there was something different about his little brother. “He had a whole different attitude about the way he looked at his past and his future. He had goals,” Glenn says. Of course, he’d gotten his hopes up about Dave before, but Glenn wanted to give him another chance. Glenn offered Dave a job at the bakery immediately after picking him up from the bus station after his release. “It wasn’t necessarily going to work, but it could work,” Glenn recalls, “so I couldn’t not give it a chance.”
The problem: Dave hadn’t touched a lump of raw dough in more than a decade. He hardly remembered how to bake bread. That meant a lot of trial and error. Though Dave was being paid to work for 40 hours a week for $12 an hour, he was spending 80 hours at the bakery, tinkering with the idea of making cookies and shaping different kinds of loaves. Then it all came together.
“I knew it was good when I pulled [the first] loaf of Blues Bread out of the oven,” Dave says. This was the first of many killer breads, a sliced loaf of whole wheat with seeds and blue cornmeal rolled around the outside that gave it a ghost of cerulean hue. “It was beautiful,” he says. His tone is almost reverent, the look on his face like he’s remembering seeing the loaf for the first time. Blues Bread was the mother bread, and once Dave had the core idea — a healthful wheat loaf rolled in seeds and grains — “she just started having kids.”
They went to market just months after Dave first started testing recipes. By 2013, the Dahls had shed the old family brand; Dave’s Killer Bread’s quick-rising popularity led the family to phase out the NatureBake label. When the new company launched in 2005, Dave’s Killer Bread offered four varieties: Blues Bread, Nuts & Grains, Good Seed, and Rockin’ Rye. Good Seed was always special for Dave, the loaf as well as the name. (In 2008, he published a memoir titled Good Seed: The Dave’s Killer Bread Story.) Dave always felt like the proverbial bad seed before he turned his life around — in the loaf, of all things, he saw his own transformation. When the company grew enough that it could no longer roll each bread in good seeds by hand, it had a machine made for this purpose. The tale of Good Seed has been so thoroughly indoctrinated into Dave’s Killer Bread culture that, even today, the employees I’ve talked to and Dave tell the story nearly verbatim. Good Seed is the loaf that put Dave’s transformation in perspective, but no longer being a part of the company has changed his relationship to it — like losing custody of the child who looks just like you.
Dave never thought he’d get wealthy from bread (how many other bread-based millionaires have you heard of?). He just wanted to make something people would like. Soon he was telling his story to thousands, to students and lawyers — to anyone who’d listen. He’d fill the trunk of his Escalade with bread and take the loaves inside. During Q&A sessions he’d turn to his assistant and say, “I think that question deserves a loaf of bread,” and they’d toss a loaf to the inquirer. This glutenous ice-breaker was successful; a sea of hands would raise after the first gift was tossed, each person hoping they’d be the next to receive nourishment from the stage. Loaves rained down upon them.
From the time Dave got out of prison and started baking, the company started growing, from 25 to 50 employees and up — at its peak, 300 worked out of the Milwaukie bakery. Glenn had hired a few ex-cons to work at the bakery while Dave was in prison; their dad had a history of hiring those who struggled to find work, so it felt natural to keep the tradition going. Once Dave got out and his bread became successful, the company hired more.
“It wasn’t like we were thinking, Oh this is a felon-friendly program, or anything like that,” Dave says. They just wanted to hire good people and sometimes those good people just happened to be felons. One day he and Glenn “woke up” and realized over 100 of their employees were ex-cons. The media had picked up on it before they did. “We realized that here we were just doing the right thing and it was actually promoting the brand.” It was making their business better and making the world a little better at the same time. If Dave had been a different type of guy, he might have been giving TED talks about the redemptive power of baking.
He met his then-girlfriend, Michelle Bain, when he was still that caricature, Dave of Dave’s Killer Bread. His rough past and the years in prison had made it hard for Dave to form long-term relationships with women. But something clicked between him and Michelle — they were together, on and off, for eight years.
Dave put a down payment on a house in 2009; Michelle moved in with him. Previously, he’d spent the early months out of prison at his mom’s garage, then later rented a house in Northeast Portland from an old friend. That was the year he finally had the money to own a place for himself. Dave stopped getting paid hourly and became president of the Dave’s Killer Bread brand, which came with a much larger paycheck. By 2012, only seven years after its founding, the company’s revenue exceeded $53 million. Dave’s story amplified the allure of his bread, and the brand made him a local celebrity. Mundane trips to the grocery store or Best Buy became impromptu fan sessions. Even now, when the company lists promotional events online, people still comment wondering whether Dave will be there. Glenn is still mistaken for his brother at business conferences. “They just call me Dave,” he says. “I have to say that bothers me more than anything.”
Behind the scenes, tension was growing between Glenn, his son Shobi, and Dave. In 2008, Glenn and Dave would send emails to one another from the same office instead of speaking, according to an Inc. magazine article published in 2009. The piece also revealed that Dave and Shobi often argued. They’d trade seething emails — airing out frustrations that vacillated between petty and consequential. Shobi accused his uncle of having an overinflated ego, of wearing cutoffs at work, of threatening to hit him. “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,” Shobi wrote. It took family business counseling to help them through their issues, “after which we were able to work together to a degree,” Dave says.
“Somehow [Dave] was under the impression I was trying to cheat him,” was all Glenn would say on the subject. “It was a very dark time.” Today, the two brothers would rather put the past behind them. Both dance around the subject of why the tension sprung up between them in the first place. “Coming out of prison, you’re not supposed to make a splash right away,” Dave says. Both acknowledge that, maybe — just maybe — Dave’s success had been hard for Glenn. He was the one who’d been home doing everything right while his brother was in prison. Yet he was swiftly eclipsed by Dave’s face and name.
But the compelling narrative of Dave’s Killer Bread had already taken hold in the public consciousness. When Dave went to talk to schools, it wasn’t as a drug recovery speaker; it was as a success story. As far as everyone knew, Dave’s new lease on life had provided him with a neat and total transformation. “I’d keep telling myself, I am so fortunate and so grateful and so humble. This is not about me,” he says. “But still, there was an unreal sort of ego.” Dave is telling me this story in a dim office, reclined three-quarters of the way in a massage chair. We are upstairs in a warehouse that holds his art. Occasionally music strays up from the shop floor. I can just make out the Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” and later “You Wreck Me” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
As Dave’s star rose, his occasional beers became less occasional. Ladd Justesen, who met Dave in 1998 during that last prison stint, was hired as a personal assistant but soon became Dave’s driver, chauffeuring him around town in the black Escalade so Dave could work or relax during these commuting breaks in his hectic schedule. Dave didn’t get a driver for the express purpose of drinking on the job, but “it came in handy when I [did want] to drink,” he says. In his memoir, Dave writes about a “monster” that lurked inside him. He brings up the monster again now, his voice getting low like he’s telling a haunting campfire tale. “The monster came in a different form this time, but it was worse in a sense. Before I was miserable, but this time I wasn’t.”
Just over five years after its birth, Dave’s Killer Bread had grown so big that Glenn and Dave had to either sell a share of the company to afford to keep growing or leave it a fairly small regional business. In 2012, they sold half the company to a New York private equity firm, Goode Partners LLC.
Less than a year later, Dave’s drinking got so serious that the company’s new board of directors took notice. Dave agreed to be sent to a rehab center in Utah for alcohol abuse, and continued seeing a psychiatrist to ensure he was receiving the proper medication after his return home. Still, he kept drinking. When the board found out, the members forced him to take a sabbatical. It was as hard on his employees as it was on Dave. “All the guys and girls that we gave chances to that were ex-felons, oh man, those people just loved him,” Justesen says. “The things he’d done for them — they were getting good wages and had insurance, and Dave took care of those people there really super well. … He missed that.”
Michelle knew the sabbatical spelled the end of Dave’s time with the company, even if he couldn’t see the signs himself. “He was still hoping for it to go back in some capacity,” she says. Justesen says that it was Dave’s diminished role in the company that brought on his eventual self-described breakdown. “I could see it in him that not having control over what was happening with the bakery and the eventual selling of it was just taking a toll on him.”
Without anything to be on his best behavior for, Dave could do whatever he wanted. One night, on August 3, 2013, he got drunk at his cabin near Mount Hood with some friends. Christopher Dailey was one of them. Chris was a “loose-cannon buddy,” as Dave tells it. The two friends met during one of Dave’s stints in prison.
The party had been going strong into the next morning when Chris said he had to go back down the mountain. Dave let him drive his Escalade, “which was, you know, insane,” he says. They were wasted. “We’re drinking and I let him drive my car,” Dave says. “That’s how drunk I was.”
Police found the car in the city of Fairview later that day, but Chris was gone and no one knew where to or why. A missing persons report was filed by Chris’s partner, Barbara Pierce (formerly Lively); friends and family searched; nearly two months later, police found Chris’s body near some blackberry bushes in the Portland neighborhood of Lents.
Dave admits he made some mistakes, but never explicitly apologizes for what transpired.
“I made a dumb move, and the guy never came back and he died,” Dave says. “There was definitely the fear that … the worst [had] happened, and it did. I was heartbroken. … I gotta admit that I think that what was hurting more was how I was getting attacked by people who thought I had something to do with it.”
Barbara told the Willamette Week that she blamed Dave for what happened after the cabin trip. If it hadn’t been for the night spent with Dave and the drinking — Chris, she said, had been sober — he would still be alive. That’s where the rumors started. In the comment section under a link to the Willamette article, Barbara posted a long, all-caps comment about her husband. “DAVE IS ALL ABOUT DAVE,” she wrote. She wrote that she had asked Dave to help look for Chris and approach the media to spread the word about Chris’s disappearance. His celebrity, she thought, might help the search. “He didn’t want no part of helping and he thought media wasn’t the way to go,” Barbara wrote in a comment.
She was furious with him, but made it clear in comment sections that she never accused Dave of killing Chris, just of being negligent — a fatally bad friend. Still, people jumped to their own conclusions. “Killer bread or just killer?” read one comment. (Barbara declined to be interviewed for this story, telling me she didn’t want to “partake in anything that would glorify [Dave] whatsoever.”)
Barbara tried to keep the focus on Chris. In the comments on the Willamette piece she described posting missing-persons flyers for 53 days before she got the news that police had found Chris’s body. “The love of my life out there just laying in blackberry bushes for so long,” she wrote. “It just makes me sick. It’s been one of the most horrific nightmares of my life.” Barbara criticized Dave for not attending the funeral; Dave says he not only wasn’t invited but that being in that environment — a room surrounded by people who hated him while he was going through the beginnings of a mental breakdown — wouldn’t have been a healthy choice. “I was as bummed as most anyone when Chris was found dead,” Dave says. “But it wasn’t my fault.”
The Cult of Dave was no longer such an easy sell to many of Dave’s Killer Bread’s fans on social media. For disciples who brought the bread into their homes based on the founder’s character, his presence at the periphery of a death was more than enough to turn them away. Many more weren’t bothered by a hint of scandal in their baked goods. “I do not look down on Dave, only hope that he finds peace,” said one Facebook comment. “And mmm this bread still tastes great!”
The day of Dave’s breakdown, after punching his cardboard self in the face, he sped away from the Bob’s Red Mill store in Milwaukie, Oregon, ignoring stop signs as he drove.
He was supposed to drive the three or so hours to Seattle that night with Michelle. Dave drove first, then she took over. He says he remembers saying things like, “go, don’t go, stop, go, don’t go,” which didn’t mean anything but in his head seemed perfectly logical. Michelle knew something was off before the drive — he’d been acting erratically for a few days. Dave refused to pack clothing for the trip, not even a toothbrush. “‘The universe will provide,’” she recalls him saying. “There was part [of him] that was in touch with reality and part that wasn’t,” Michelle says. Eventually she convinced him to turn back and stop at the home of a friend who Michelle hoped could help Dave. One of the friends secretly made three calls to mental health professionals that evening. Dave wanted to go home. Michelle was trying to keep him there until someone arrived. After a few hours, Dave drove off on his own and was greeted by Washington County Sheriff’s deputies, who had also been requested in addition to the mental health professionals they’d called for.
The first deputy on the scene radioed others. They were planning to follow Dave’s Escalade at a distance. Two blocks away from the house, Dave ran into one of the deputy’s cars. He kept driving. If you’ve ever watched a car chase in an action movie, you’ve seen a sped-up version of what happened next. As Dave continued down the road while following the speed limit, one deputy repeatedly rammed into Dave’s car in an attempt to get him to pull over. It didn’t work. Dave’s evasion led him into a cul-de-sac, where one deputy positioned their car in the middle of the road as a barricade. The other deputy drove their vehicle up to pin Dave between the two sheriff’s department cars. A deputy rapped on Dave’s passenger window with their metal baton. “Mr. Dahl sat frozen, gripping the steering wheel, unresponsive to the commands to exit the vehicle,” according to the defendant’s memorandum submitted during the criminal trial after Dave’s arrest. After a third deputy arrived on the scene, they pulled Dave from his vehicle, used a Taser on him twice, and threw him to the ground. One of the deputy “repeatedly struck Dave in the face and the head” before taking him into custody, according to the court document. Dave was booked for assault in the second degree, assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, reckless driving, and criminal mischief.
Michelle knew none of this. All she was told was that Dave had been taken to the hospital and was “fine,” according to her friends. When she woke up at five the next morning, the first thing she saw was Dave on the news. “It was the biggest story,” she says. “My heart was breaking … he just looked so scared.”
Dave was taken to a psychiatric hospital, where he stayed until he was stable. (He was later granted conditional release after being found guilty except for insanity; during a forensic psychological examination, he was diagnosed with bipolar I.) When the fog cleared, a thought flashed through him: His actions may have led to the death of Dave’s Killer Bread. “I let everybody down. I let the company down. I let the employees [down],” he says. “I thought I’d made a difference and all of the sudden it’s like, did all that shit just go up in smoke?”
Few people have ever known what it’s like to walk into a grocery store and see their face gracing the aisles. Mrs. Butterworth and Betty Crocker were figments of some marketer’s imagination. Oscar Mayer and Chef Boyardee are long dead. Jimmy Dean got old enough to be dropped as company spokesman; he no longer looked like the face people thought of when they thought about Jimmy Dean.
When Dave Dahl looks at those bread packages, what he sees is what we all see: a freshly transformed ex-con ready to leave the past behind him and has created a product that people don’t just like but adore. He was a literal poster child for breaking through a sordid past and finding success. He worked more hours a week than he could count and shook hands and smiled when people approached him on his days off. Then the real Dave disappeared from public life while his caricature appeared in more and more aisles across the country.
For someone who once smashed a cardboard cutout of himself, it’s odd that today Dave spends most of his days surrounded by masks. When the bread company’s sale went through, Dave started going to garage sales on the weekends, and found an African mask at one of them. He saw something that reminded him of himself, perhaps more so than what he saw in the illustration on the Killer Bread packaging. If the Dave on the package represented the qualities in himself he idealized, the masks present a much fuller, realer spectrum.
The white, middle-aged ex-con who has never been to Africa is as mystified as anyone as to how he wound up in the African art business. Where addiction once dominated much of Dave’s life, what consumes him these days is art. He just kept buying masks and, with millions in the bank, he had plenty of money with which to do it. “When I did drugs, I had to sell drugs. When I did bread, I had to sell bread,” he laughs. With art, he says he’s created a train that’s barreling down the tracks, and he’s just trying to hold on.
Dave may not have put a lot of thought into getting into the African art business, but he is obsessed by surrounding himself with it. He’s had to live up to his own fictionalized image ever since 2005 and even though the company isn’t his anymore, his face hasn’t gone anywhere. Part of the sale of Dave’s Killer Bread included a negotiation for life story rights; after all, Dave’s tale is synonymous with the company’s. He had to fight to retain control of his own narrative. Otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to talk to me or any other writers. For the rest of his life, the story of Dave’s Killer Bread would have been erased from his timeline. Now he’s surrounded by stories and veneers that come from halfway around the world.
Dave’s collection is stored at the Discover African Art warehouse in Clackamas. Sales are so slow that he has started to give some of the art away. He’s keeping his more valuable personal collection intact, but he figures he’d might as well let a charity sell the items and make some money.
“One thing about this place is if it fails, it’s going to fail big time,” Dave says. Even if it does, it will just become one more chapter in his story — available for anyone to take or leave. Dave has spent the past few chapters struggling to be a better person, to put some good back in the world to make up for what he’s taken out of it. The masks have helped Dave reclaim what he lost when he gave his face away to the company he founded. Behind those hundreds of faces — time-weathered, intricate, strong — that’s where you’ll find the real Dave.