A Killer Family Business Saga

By Lloyd Graff

I just listened twice to a podcast with Dave Dahl, creator of Dave’s Killer Bread.  It was the most recent “How I Built This” podcast, conducted by the finest interviewer I’ve heard, Guy Raz of NPR.

Dahl slowly recounted his story of almost forty years, much of it about misery, depression, and failure, culminating in enormous financial success and more disappointment.

From a journalistic viewpoint the podcast was a masterpiece of storytelling – a slow, meticulous, layered presentation of a man’s life of pain and, particularly, family resilience.  From a business standpoint it was fascinating and revealing.

Dave's killer family business

David Dahl’s parents had a small family bakery in Portland, Oregon.  They were Seventh-day Adventists.  His father slowly moved the business toward whole-grain products.  David started working in the bakery when he was tall enough to reach the dough table. He was nine years old, earning 25 cents an hour, some of which he was forced to use to pay for school and clothes.  He describes himself as almost always angry and rebellious, suffering from being bipolar and having ADD.  He dropped out of high school, experimented with drugs and alcohol, and joined the Marine Corps, ultimately dropping out.  He said he was always running away from something.  After the Marines he got hooked on cocaine and meth, which pushed him into car theft and armed robbery.

Dahl spent a total of 15 years in jail, despondent, angry, and frequently suicidal.  He shunned treatment but eventually consented to taking Paxil, an antidepressant which he says had an almost immediate positive effect on him.  He was offered an opportunity in 2002 to take a class in computerized drafting, and he loved it.  He finally left jail in 2003, and his brother Glenn, eight years older than him, who had taken over the family bakery, offered him a $12-an-hour job as a baker, which he accepted.

The Dahl family was not a happy, jolly one.  The relationship between Dave and Glenn was strained from the beginning and did not get easier when Glenn’s son Shobi, an Economics graduate of Brown, came into the business around the same time.

But Dave Dahl had finally changed from the drug-dependent, despondent criminal.  He had accepted himself and had a passion to do something with his life, and bread was his vehicle.

Glenn and Shobi gave him the time and oven space to develop breads of his own creation.  He used seeds and nuts and whole grains to develop unique breads.  He sold them at local farmers’ markets around Portland and quickly developed a following.  He created a bread made with bluish cornmeal, called Blues Bread, and then his trademark, “Dave’s Killer Bread,” which concisely told his personal story of jail, dependency, and resilience on the label, with a cartoon picture of Dave with enhanced biceps.

The business grew spectacularly, getting clients like Safeway and Costco.  Dave and his nephew developed the Dave’s brand independently, buying equity into the entire family baking business run by his brother Glenn.  It was an enormously successful, yet extremely unhappy and contentious, family business.

The family sold it to a private-equity firm in 2012 and became quite wealthy, but still unhappy, rarely speaking to one another other than nodding at family gatherings.

I was enthralled by Dave Dahl’s saga and his candor. Putting his story on the bread packaging was the brilliant, counterintuitive move that struck me.  His marketing consultant thought he was crazy.  But he did it anyway.

I get it. I want to know something about the life stories of people I do business with.  I like to check out their websites for at least a glimpse into who they are.  I very rarely get anything juicy or substantive to grasp.  If there is anything at all it’s usually a predictable, frothy story of happy success.

We all know enterprises are built from failure and conflict.  It may not be jail and drug addiction and family drama, but life is a struggle.  Nobody gets a pass.

Dave Dahl, the miserable, 15-year prison veteran reveals himself on his signature bread.  We eat it up.

Question: What is the story of your business? Has there been drama?

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5 thoughts on “A Killer Family Business Saga

  1. Lloyd GraffLloyd Graff

    The Todays Machining World story.
    I had written a newsletter for Graff Pinkert in the 1980s and 90’s. It had some articles and news and talked about the business and our machinery inventory. I always wanted to do more with it. Finally in 1999 after my father Leonard had died, and me and my brother Jim were running the business I got it in my head that I really wanted to do a major league magazine. In retrospect it was an act of supreme chutzpah and poorly placed self confidence to try something so grandiose while trying to make money in the quixotic used machinery business. This was at a time when CNC equipment was beginning to encroach on the screw machine world, newsprint publications were being challenged by online media, and I was going up against entrenched trade magazines.
    What I did have was knowledge of machining world, enthusiasm and creativity. I also had energy and writing talent. As I look back on those magazines of the first few years of the 2000s, I realize they were exceptionally interesting and unique. I may be more polished as a writer today, but those early Screw Machine Worlds were pretty amazing rags.
    But there was a real cost to what I was doing. The publication continually lost money. Graff Pinkert foot a lot of the bill and I know Jim was resentful of the time I put into it and the financial cost. But I was on a mission. The magazine was my passion. I actually convinced myself I could do the machinery and the magazine successfully.
    Then in 2008, I had the heart attack that should have killed me, but somehow, by the grace of God I survived. Jim’s wife Ronnie was working in the company then, which was a mistake from my point of view. After I returned and still I wanted to continue the Magazine, the handwriting was on the wall for a breakup of the company. The brutal recession at the time made it more of a necessity. My son Noah was working in the company and becoming more of a force which caused more family strife. In my confident arrogance I bought Jim out for cash. Probably a poor business decision on my part.
    But we kept going. The magazine, Now Todays Machining World became fully online and less ambitious than the print publication had been. It makes a little money now, but from a business standpoint it is more of a branding device than profit center. Noah has developed into leader in both businesses. I do not regret what I have done with it, but it has had major costs within the family and financially. But on the whole I am glad I embarked on this 20 year craziness of starting a magazine.

     
  2. Lloyd GraffLloyd Graff

    Pure ineptitude by proofreaders. I wrote the piece. This for noticing.In the precision machining business, mistakes are not allowed, supposedly. In the writing world, they are identified and then chirped about ad nauseum.

     
  3. AvatarVictor

    Just listened to the podcast based on your recommendation. It was interesting – thanks for mentioning it.

    Too bad there was so much family conflict.

     
  4. Avatarfred

    Found Powerseed at Walmart…….damn good stuff.
    Love it with cream cheese.
    Thanks for the heads up Lloyd

     

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