I Worked At Voodoo Doughnut for 3 Months. Here’s The Hole Story.

“€œTALKING SHIT ABOUT HALL & OATES WILL RESULT IN IMMEDIATE DISCIPLINARY ACTION.”
This sign hanging next to the employee schedule at Voodoo Doughnut is probably a joke, but I’m not quite sure. Working at this bright-pink tourist trap in Old Town seemed like it would be fun, but now I’m wondering. It’s late June and the shop is 95 degrees because management believes air conditioning disturbs the magic of the dough. Voodoo does not offer training classes or videos for newly hired doughnuteers—just an old-fashioned pep talk in a back hallway crowded with bikes and empty milk crates.
“This job is hard,” says my new boss, Wayne, as he delivers mine. “It’s going to sound like I’m yelling at you right now, but every new person hears this. This job is fun, but it’s also dangerous. You’ll meet a lot of new friends here—people start bands, meet their boyfriends or girlfriends here, have parties, whatever. It’s a good old time. Do whatever you want on your own time, but you are here to work. Do not show up to work drunk or stoned—ever. You can slip and fall and burn your face in the fryer.”
I hung up my backpack in a cramped hallway, noticing yet another pink sign.
“DO NOT PUT YOUR DRINKS ON THE BENCH—THIS IS WHERE MY BUTT GOES.”
After working at Voodoo Doughnut for three months, I learned that Wayne was right: It’s hard. It’s not hard because the employees are stoned deadbeats, but because there’s pressure on the crew working the register to take in $5,000 in an eight-hour shift selling a product that costs an average of $2, much of it purchased by confused tourists who just survived a gauntlet of aggressive panhandlers. That girl with the septum piercing may look like she’s too cool to care while working the register. But if she doesn’t take in $1,000 during the first four hours of her Friday-afternoon shift, there’s a decent chance she won’t be here Saturday.
images.washingtonpost
To folks on the other side of the register, Voodoo Doughnut looks like bedlam. The music is loud, the employees are terminally hip, and the lobby is decorated with satanic bric-a-brac and stained-glass portraits of owners Tres Shannon and Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson. 
But everything at Voodoo is deliberate, right down to the strategies for getting customers out the door fast, the secret ways cashiers push certain doughnuts on the unsuspecting, and that counting room in the back with piles of cash.
Voodoo already has two busy locations in Portland and another in Eugene. This week, Voodoo hosts a grand-opening party for its first out-of-state store, in Denver. Austin, Texas, is rumored to be next. Pogson told the Portland Business Journal last June that Voodoo plans to expand into 10 to 20 stores across the country.
Don’t be distracted by the crushed-velvet portrait of rapper Rick Ross  Isaac Hayes or the ear-splitting death metal—Voodoo is perhaps the most ruthlessly efficient business in Portland. Somewhere, there’s probably a pink spreadsheet showing a 10-percent increase in productivity as “Maneater” plays in the kitchen.

“I don’t really like doughnuts,” a tan guy with spiky hair and a neon-green Nike shirt says to me.

You’d like five doughnuts?” I shout back at him. Metallica is cranked to 11. I really can’t hear shit.

Related: Voodoo Doughnut to Open in a Los Angeles Theme Park

The secret to Voodoo’s success is that even tourists who hate doughnuts have to go there—they heard about it from Anthony Bourdain, Jay Leno or Time magazine. Maybe they saw a couple get married there on TV, or heard about how the Food and Drug Administration ordered the shop to stop topping doughnuts with NyQuil and Pepto-Bismol. However it happened, a bacon maple bar is now an essential gold coin for anyone who wants to claim they saw Portland. Not getting one would be like leaving Las Vegas without throwing a nickel in the slots.


“I said I don’t really like doughnuts!” the man says. “I’m in town for the
Hood to Coast Relay and all my friends at Nike told me I had to come
here! I only want one—which should I get?”

This is it, I thought. Today is the day I get canned because I have to spend
10 minutes helping this guy decide on the color of sprinkles on his cake doughnut. There’s no way I’ll drop enough cash from my till at lunchtime not to get fired—it just happened to the friendly goth kid hired at the same time as me. The goth kid was nice, but he was slow. The day manager intercepted him in the back room before his scheduled
shift. There were no goodbyes.

“My girlfriend just texted me to get her something gluten-free, but I’m out of cash. Do you take American Express?” Nike guy asks—oblivious to the “CASH ONLY” signs. I watch the new guy at the next register ring up $30 in bacon maple bars for a portly couple in matching Oakland Raiders jerseys. If I don’t keep things moving, the kid they’re training by my side could be my replacement. He’s a tall, skinny kid wearing a beanie—just like me.

Over the summer, Voodoo hires new employees in waves. In June, they hired seven of us from a group of applicants that packed the New Market
Theater
building lobby with pink applications in hand. At least three were gone by August. If this Nike guy doesn’t buy a damned doughnut, it will be four.

“You can’t leave without buying our most famous doughnut, the bacon maple bar,” I tell him, praying I’ll get a large family of rotund tourists
from Dallas next. We’re always hoping to spot XXL Cowboys jerseys, as
visiting Texans tend to gorge themselves on fritters and the hemorrhoid
pillow-sized Tex-Ass, Voodoo’s most expensive offerings. The Tex-Ass,
which is the size of six regular doughnuts, is free if you finish it within 80 seconds. I’ve only seen one person do it without puking into the white bucket we provide them. The other 100 or so had to fork over $5.25.

Pete meets Danzig
Pete meets Danzig
Pete with Glenn Danzig
 

If Henry Ford were to strap on a pair of slip-resistant Doc Martens and step behind the counter, he’€™d start excitedly asking questions—assuming he could be heard over Metallica’€™s Master of Puppets, which one of my
shiftmates decides to blare during his hour of stereo time. There are no
rules for the Voodoo stereo, but it’€™s considered poor form to turn down
the volume on someone else’s turn.

To fill the pink boxes littered throughout Old Town and being carried in
security queues at PDX, it takes a small army of people.

Flour, yeast and other staples arrive in nondescript bags via BakeMark USA, a restaurant wholesaler based in Southern California. A tandem of “yeasters” follows strict guidelines—written on pink paper that’s haphazardly taped to the wall—to determine how much yeast to roll out and when. After the dough rises, it goes to a fryer charged with mixing batter for cake doughnuts, and ensuring enough bacon is fried and ready to adorn Voodoo’s top-selling confection.

Racks of plain doughnuts sit until a team of two or three decorators turn them into Old Dirty Bastards and Grape Apes. Employees don’t learn this until they’ve mastered register and janitor shifts. After that, they learn to make the doughnuts.

I capped out at decorator, never rising to yeaster or fryer, positions where you can either disfigure yourself or ruin an entire batch of dough. There’s also a prep shift that does nothing but scoop frosting from one bin into another, crush Chick-O-Stick bars for a doughnut no one ever buys and mix 15 shades of red icing for the deco team’s piping bags.

Finally, doughnuts are sold by a register jockey who tries to stuff cash into the drawer fast enough not to get fired.

Not one of those jobs is particularly undesirable. Voodoo’s worst shift, by far, is the janitor, who spends eight hours washing and rewashing the same trash can-sized mixing bowl, mopping the grease-slick floors and wrangling an endless barrage of garbage.

But it gets worse. According to yet another piece of pink paper, it’s the
janitor’s job to retrieve any pink box visible from the under the neon Voodoo Doll sign hanging in front of the store—problematic, since people who buy a dozen doughnuts at 4 am rarely know how to properly dispose of their trash. Janitors spend their nights jogging across Southwest 3rd Avenue to pick up stray boxes dumped behind Dante’s.

The night-shift janitor is also the person most likely to have run-ins with the assorted drunks, hobos, trustafarians and meth-heads who loiter about the area that Voodoo’s owners refer to as “the crotch of Portland.”

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“Are you throwing those away?”€ It’€™s 4 am on a Saturday in August and a spindly woman in a leopard-print dress screams this at me as I hoist 70 pounds of unused doughnuts into a metal container marked “COMPOST ONLY.”€ She’€™s a cracked-out Beyonce starring in a Spike Lee movie about a prostitute who reforms and goes to medical school—before she gets clean. I ignore her prattling as I try to cram a flimsy compostable bag of undecorated dough into a bloated dumpster.

As usual, the bag tears open.

“That’s what y’all get!” she cackles as the bag vomits its contents across the sidewalk. “You should be donatin’ that shit to charity, but oohhhhh no! You gotta be tellin’ Jesus that his people ain’t good enough for y’alls fancy, fancy doughnuts!”

I try to be nice. “If you’d like to play Robin Hood and distribute the wealth amongst your friends here, be my guest,” I say. “There’s plenty for all!”

“Fuck you!” she snaps at me. “You will die alone! Ya hear me? Then you can have all the goddamn doughnuts you want!”

She spins around, wobbles off her high heels and trips into the
solar-powered trash compactor no one seems to want to put their garbage into. I sigh and go back to picking up trash. For this, I’m paid $10 an hour plus health and dental benefits and a share of the tips, which works out to about another $2 an hour.

Most restaurants strive to maximize profits by upselling patrons on mozzarella sticks to wring an extra dollar or two out of their wallets. The assumption is that paying customers are a finite resource. This is not the case at Voodoo Doughnut. When there’s no shortage of people willing to fork over cash for your product, the point of sale becomes the bottleneck. Sales are dictated by how many people you can shoo out the door—not in.

This creates an odd dynamic. Unlike every other service-industry or retail job I’ve had—20 or so in my 30 years—at Voodoo you’re allowed, even encouraged, to be abrupt with the customers. There are few regulars at Voodoo. Most need to be hustled through the sideshow so another mark can hand over a $20 from the lobby ATM. This is why Voodoo workers appear to be surly. If we smile, customers take their time.

I learned on my first day that graciousness is terribly inefficient. Early in my shift, I waited on an elderly woman from Indiana. She admired my patience and pleasant demeanor. I was proud of keeping my cool and helping her decide on a blueberry cake doughnut, which set her back $1.

My manager pulled me aside during my lunch break—I never saw Pogson at the shop, and saw Shannon only before or after his Monday night Karaoke From Hell gigs at Dante’s—to show me a printed report for my till.

“Great job, buddy,” he said. “I can see you’re good with customers, which is awesome. But I need you to step it up. See Janni over here? She’s a pro. She was dropping $1,000 by lunch at the end of her first week. No pressure, but, ya know, we really need you to get to that level. OK?
OK!”

He rubbed my shoulders and ran back to the deco station. The guy next to him was taking his time decorating a tray of Voodoo Doll doughnuts to look like Harry Potter characters.

Within a week, I was much faster. And I started to enjoy screwing with the customers.

“Hi,” squeaked a girl wearing a crucifix and a shirt that proclaimed her the maid of honor. “I’d like, uh, erm…the C and B?” She tried not to make eye contact while asking for a giant cream-filled doughnut shaped like a penis.

“Oh,” I replied haughtily. “You mean the Cock and Balls? The doughnut that’s shaped like a giant penis? Let me check and see if I can satisfy your appetite for that item—it sure is popular tonight!”

If we run out of Cock and Balls—which happens a lot on Friday nights—the customer will look at me like I just kicked a puppy. Even after I explain that it’s just a phallic version of the Portland Cream, the damage is done. I’ve ruined their night. Off to the all-male revue they go with heavy hearts and a bag of Triple Chocolate Penetration doughnuts they’ll probably give to a homeless person in a sleeping bag on the Burnside Bridge.

But the strategy to get people out the door—while maximizing the cash they leave behind—is even more intricate. The random Voodoo Dozen is priced cheaper than a regular dozen so cashiers can sidestep the customer’s time-consuming indecision and get rid of soon-to-be-stale doughnuts.

And how do they know which doughnuts are nearly going bad? Ever notice the paper under the Memphis Mafia fritter on the speed racks is white while the paper under the Gay Bar is brown? They’re color-coded by shift, so cashiers know which doughnuts are oldest. When you order a Voodoo Dozen at midnight, you’re getting something off the white paper—made by the day shift that clocked out around 8 pm.

Pro tip: If you want the freshest doughnut at 9 am, get something that’s on brown paper. If you want the freshest doughnut at 9 pm, get something on white paper.

voodoo-donut_jenn-liv

I never thought they would catch the kid.

I was locking my bike before work when I saw a group of crust punks sitting at one of the picnic tables in front of Voodoo. A kid walks up, pulls a switchblade out of his pocket and slashes a foot-long hole in our new blue umbrella. He crams the knife back into his pocket and runs off. I flag down a lethargic-looking member of Portland Clean & Safe squad and tell him what I saw. He says he will alert the police and waddles away. The kids at the table are not happy. I just snitched on their friend.

“What the fuck, bro?” one of them yells at me.

“Yeah, dude,” says a shirtless kid with dreadlocks who appears to be their leader. “We take care of shit on our own out here. Street justice, bro. That kid was just bein’ a clown. We would’ve straightened him out right then and there. We don’t need the cops.”

The cops found the kid, cuffed him and called me to confirm his identity. I asked what would happen. “Well,” a bike cop replied. “He’s a minor, so we’re trying to get a hold of his mom. He’ll probably end up in juvenile detention for a few days. Who knows after that.”

I spent the next two weeks looking over my shoulder, convinced “street justice” was coming for me—this was in July, just after a 70-year-old employee of the neighboring Portland Outdoor Store was assaulted with a skateboard.

I have since found a new gig at a coffeehouse in Laurelhurst with better pay, better hours and clientele who only get upset when the last slice of quiche disappears. There are no panhandlers and I get free food of sustenance. The only downside is I am required to be polite, no matter how long customers take to decide between a croissant and a bagel.

Meanwhile, back in the “Entertainment District,” the Voodoo circus is still in full swing. This is what happens when one of the city’s largest cash-only businesses sits in the seediest neighborhood in town. Because panhandlers know everyone stuck in Voodoo’s slow-moving line has a pocketful of cash, they stalk the naive tourists like a pack of wolves. It’s not uncommon to see a combination of buskers, druggies with makeshift signs and ungrateful kids from the suburbs all trying to give patrons the shakedown.

What the hobos don’t get, the store does.

On a sunny Saturday, Voodoo rakes in piles of cash—literally. With four registers each taking in at least $1,000 in small bills on a busy shift, you have a mountain of greenbacks. I once creaked opened a door to find a team of managers feeding tall stacks of rumpled bills into a wheezing bill-counting machine. It looked like a scene from Scarface, but without the cocaine and machine guns.

“No one would believe this,” I thought to myself.

“Close the door!” someone yelled.

I closed the door.

Someone should post another pink sign. 

What’s Up with the Notion that “Real” Portlanders Don’t Use Umbrellas?

There is the notion here that real Portlanders do not use umbrellas. Really? We’re stupid enough or silly enough to get drenched in a downpour?
—Kevin S.

What is a “real Portlander,” anyway? I thought all the real Portlanders moved away in 1995 to escape the Californians. (Luckily, they left behind plenty of lumberjack clothes to keep the hipsters warm on their collective daily trek from the Prius to the Stumptown counter.)

Related: Dry Is the New Wet: The Case for Umbrellas in Portland

More saliently—what downpour? Not to go all old-man on you (he said, lying), but in my Illinois youth we had real rain. I’m pretty sure I walked 20 miles to school each day through chest-deep flash floods, naked, with rabid crayfish dangling by their claws from my nut sack. (And I was glad!)

That’s the kind of rain you need an umbrella for. In Portland, we don’t use umbrellas because…it doesn’t rain that much here.

Now, now; put away those pitchforks. Sure, it rains often, and it rains for a long time. It just doesn’t rain that much. Portland isn’t even in the top 15 major U.S. cities in annual rainfall.

We are No. 1 in rainy (as distinct from snowy) days, with around 165 per year—we even beat Seattle! But due to the fact that our precipitation is not so much rain as an extremely dickish form of fog, you never get the kind of wring-out-your-briefs wet that makes you shake your tiny fist at the sky and vow, “Never again.”

Add to that the fact that if you did carry an umbrella, you’d have to carry it all the time, and you can see why for most Portlanders it hardly seems worth the
trouble.

All of this does nothing to mitigate the soul-crushing, Kafkaesque oppressiveness of five straight months without sun, of course, but an umbrella won’t help with
that. Might I recommend a flask?

QUESTIONS? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com

Hotseat: Robin Lopez

THE CHUNK OF DUNK: Robin Lopez blows past the Houston Rockets’ Chandler Parsons at Moda Center on Dec. 12. “Those are two spheres that usually don’t interconnect,” Lopez says of his interests outside of basketball. “I try to keep them separate because it gives me a little sanctuary to go to.”
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

 

Robin Lopez is, literally and figuratively, a giant nerd.

That’s normally an ill-advised thing to say about someone built like a Greek colossus, but the Blazers’ 7-foot, 255-pound center wouldn’t take offense.

How else to describe a guy who spends his NBA money on comic books, could dominate a Disney-themed pub quiz, customizes his game shoes with elaborate Sharpie illustrations, regularly tweets about The Goonies and ’90s sitcoms, and loves watching golden-age Hollywood musicals? He also rocks a cinnamon-colored Afro that’s earned him the proud nickname of “Sideshow Rob.”

He may be the most Portlandian Blazer since Bill Walton. And with his rebounding, defensive presence and hustle contributing to the Blazers’ best start in a decade, Lopez is poised to become the team’s biggest cult hero since Channing Frye.

WW talked with Lopez to drill down further into his geekery. 

 

WW: Are you aware how well you fit the Portland archetype?

Robin Lopez: I played with Channing Frye in Phoenix, and he told me I’d fit right in. I love it. It fits like a glove.

 

What were you like as a kid?

I was pretty creative. Brook [Lopez, his twin brother who plays for the Brooklyn Nets] and I were pretty imaginative. We always had pretty wide interests.

 

Did basketball interest you first or did everything come at once?

It was definitely a concurrent development. I was kind of born into basketball, because my older brothers played. And then, likewise, I was also born into the art world. My aunt’s an architect, and my grandma, as a Christmas gift, she would always give us an art box.

My grandma in Fresno, when we lived in L.A., she had a huge library—I think it was the biggest library of children’s books in the Central Valley. There was this huge collection for us, and every time we went there it was just a treasure trove.

 

Where did the Disney obsession start?

I grew up during the renaissance, so there were great animated films to pick from. There was something appealing about the movies. They’re so universal.

 

What’s your favorite ride at Disneyland?

Pirates of the Caribbean, by far. It’s the best re-creation of reality they’ve done so far. There’s a storyline, and it kind of gets lost. They did such a great job of putting subtle themes in the ride. Everything’s very deliberate. But it is also very natural, very chaotic in its own sense. There’s something perfect about that, and
it’s not been topped.

 

Since you’ve become famous, have you been to the secret Disneyland club that serves alcohol?

Club 33? It’s cool. Brook and I became members. That’s one of the things we always wanted to do since we were little, because you always hear about it. Going up there for the first time, that felt like holy ground a little bit. It was surreal.

 

How many comics do you own? 

Not as many as Brook. He’s pretty much collecting everything DC Comics publishes right now. I have two or three titles I’ve collected and tried to complete those runs. 

You’ve said since Brook signed such a huge contract with the Nets, he’s now just blowing it on comics.

With comic books, for the most part, it’s not a costly addiction. It’s not like Fabergé eggs.

 

What is the crown jewel in your personal collection?

I do have a complete run of Teen Titans from their first print to Secret Origins to now, even though I’m not a big fan of the Essential series. I’m kind of just collecting out of the completist sense.

 

Is there a gem out there that you’re hunting for?

Showcase No. 4, the first appearance of the Barry Allen Flash. Flash Comics No. 1, which is the first golden-age Flash comic. Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories No. 1—I have it, but it’s in very ratty condition. It’s probably only worth $200. A very fine copy would be like $80,000.

 

What’s the geekiest thing you’ve bought since being in the NBA that you’ve spent a lot of money on?

It wasn’t too expensive. Nike and Michael J. Fox partnered
to put out the Air McFlys on eBay. I did get a pair of those for, like,
$20,000.

 

You’re an illustrator yourself. Who are your favorite artists? 

To go from earliest to latest: There’s always, you know, Winsor McCay, Walt Kelly, Al Capp. Will Eisner, Edward Gorey, Marc Davis. For the more typical superhero artists, George Perez, Carl Barks and Don Rosa. Tim Burton. Theodore Geisel.  

 

On Twitter, you compared this team to the Goonies. What Goonie-ish qualities do you see in this squad?

The Goonies are a close-knit group. They believe in themselves, even though there are doubters throwing darts at them outside. I posted that catch phrase a couple times, “Goonies never say die.” That’s pretty in line with the mentality of our team.

I asked Damian [Lillard] if he had seen Goonies. He said no. I’m questioning how many people on this team have actually seen the movie.

 

You said you’re the Chunk of the team.

There aren’t too many clean parallels between people and their characters. I definitely do think Wes [Matthews] is Mouth. As far as Chunk goes, I think we’re both very ridiculous, maybe in different ways.

 

When the Blazers brought you in, did you have an idea of what your role was going to be?

Just looking at the roster, I knew I was out there to do the dirty work—get extra possessions, stuff like that.

 

What do you think this team needs to make a deep playoff run? 

We’re focusing on getting back to where we were defensively during that winning streak. There’s always room for improvement. 

 

Is this year’s team tough enough? That’s another knock.

Oh really? That’s a moronic knock. Without a doubt, I don’t think toughness or greediness is an issue.

 

In a recent game in Detroit, you wrestled Hooper, the Pistons’ mascot, to the ground.

I was protecting myself. That was self-defense.

 

Which is the NBA’s most annoying mascot?

The Toronto Raptor. I wish we could go back to Toronto, because he gets my goat. I have a few choice words for that guy.

 

Can you elaborate on that?

No. He knows.

 

Are you happy to get out of New Orleans before the
arrival of Pierre the Pelican? He’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever
seen in my life.

He does look like he’ll haunt your nightmares. I’m a pretty big fan of the name, if you just embrace the ridiculousness of it. As far as Pierre the Pelican goes, I don’t know what it is with the eye shadow. It’s not a becoming look for him. It’s almost Joker-ish.

 

Pro athletes often show a single-minded devotion to their sport. Do your broad interests ever alienate you from other athletes?

There were times during the draft where people were questioning myself and Brook’s dedication to basketball just because we had outside interests, which is pretty ridiculous when you think about it.

 

Prior to entering the draft, you suggested you were hesitant about going into the NBA. Have you found it hard fitting in with the league’s culture? 

Not at all. Your college mindset is always vastly different from who you end up being. My mindset will be different five years from now; it’ll be different a year from now.

I really had no idea what NBA culture was like. I didn’t really have an idea of what people were like. Just like anybody on the street, people are just regular
dudes.

 

What are your top three favorite wizards?

Gandalf’s definitely on the list. Trying to pick my favorite Harry Potter wizard, I can easily go with Dumbledore. I always liked Professor Lupin. I’ll put him on the list. [A day after the interview, Lopez asked via his publicist to take Lupin off his list and replace him with Hermione Granger.]

I got to pick a Disney wizard. Can I pick Angela Lansbury in Bedknobs and Broomsticks? 

 

Angela Lansbury?

She’s not a particularly great wizard, but I just love that movie so much. Maybe it’s the combination of her and David Tomlinson’s character. Those are my three. 

Breaking Bread

Illustration by Kenneth Huey, photo by WW Staff.

 

For years, a 6-foot cardboard cutout of Dave Dahl greeted customers at Dave’s Killer Breadquarters in Milwaukie. In the photograph, a grinning Dahl €”with his baker’s smock, ponytail and anvil chin €”held a tray of the loaves that transformed a once-sleepy family bakery and made him famous.

But on the morning of Nov. 14, the real Dave Dahl walked into the lobby of the Milwaukie outlet store.

His hair now cropped short and gray, Dahl berated customers and employees—”preaching,” according to a 911 call made by Dan Letchinger, the company’s marketing manager.

Dahl walked over to his photograph.

“He smashed a life-sized cutout of himself,” Letchinger told the 911 dispatcher, “because he is the symbol of a brand.”

Each Dave’s Killer Bread wrapper carries a cartoon drawing of its namesake,
smiling, confident and strumming an electric guitar. “A whole lot of suffering,” the wrapper says, “has transformed an ex-con into an honest man who is doing his best to make the world a better place…one loaf of bread at a time.”

The bread is good enough to sell itself, but Dave’s own redemption story is what made him legendary: a violent criminal and addict gone straight who created a product people loved.

Ten hours after his Nov. 14 appearance at the outlet store, Dahl, who turns 51 this week, rammed two Washington County sheriff’s patrol cars with his Cadillac Escalade. Deputies had been called to deal with a man having a “mental breakdown.” Dahl faces a felony charge of second-degree attempted assault with a dangerous weapon. He declined to speak to WW for this story.

The news was heartbreaking for Dave’s Killer Bread, a family company with close-knit employees, as well as customers who admired Dahl’s efforts to stay sober and out of trouble.

€œDave is a real person with real challenges, CEO John V. Tucker tells WW in an email. €œHe has been very public about his struggles with mental health and addiction.€ 

Dahl’s potential return to prison underscores the risks the company took by
turning him into a cheerful cartoon character on its label—Tony the Tiger, but with a rap sheet.

It’s not clear what triggered Dahl’s most recent troubles, but five people who know him tell WW he has been drinking since at least 2011. Three say they have seen him become increasingly dependent on alcohol.

The people who know Dahl say he was drinking when the company sold a 50-percent stake to a New York investment firm in late 2012 to expand Dave’s Killer Bread beyond the 14 Western states where it’s sold now.

It’s not clear what the firm, Goode Partners, knew about Dahl’s drinking, which could pose a threat to the clean-and-sober image used to market the company’s bread.

“We are truly and deeply committed to the legacy that we have been handed,” Tucker, who was named the bakery’s CEO last April, tells WW. “We intend to make Dave’s Killer Bread a national brand. There hasn’t been any change in that plan.”

In 2009, Glenn Dahl told Inc. magazine that the rise of Dave’s Killer Bread depended on his brother staying clean.

“But if he did relapse?” Glenn Dahl asked. “The company would suffer, tremendously. I’d do everything I could to stop that from happening.”


 

Dave Dahl made his mark in a white-bread industry.

Americans buy $21 billion worth of bread a year. The market is rapidly consolidating—with huge corporations like Flowers Foods and Bimbo Bakeries USA gobbling larger portions.

In Portland, regional baking brands Franz and Oroweat dominate. Lots of small bakeries are trying to stay afloat—like the one run for 58 years by the Dahl family.

James A. “Jim” Dahl started out making doughnuts in 1955. He began to
specialize in organic breads in the ’60s—a tough market then, made tougher because he didn’t like the hippies who would become his customers.

He created a signature product, a sprouted-wheat bread he called Surviva, in a shop on Southeast 122nd Avenue and Division Street in Portland.

Jim Dahl died in 1998. For three decades, the family bakery has been run by his eldest son, Glenn, 59.

“They’re still fairly regional,” says Eric J. Schroeder, managing editor of the trade publication Food Business News. “It’s safe to say they’ve made a fairly significant jump.”

That transformation began when Dave Dahl arrived on Dec. 27, 2004, after he got out of prison for the last time. Glenn Dahl gave him a ride home from the bus station and offered him a $12-an-hour job at the bakery.

Dave, then 41, never liked working at the family bakery. But Glenn had given his younger brother a chance to go straight.

“Dave was always the most creative among the four siblings,” Glenn Dahl tells WW by email. “He has a wonderful ability to know what tastes good and what might make it taste better.”

Glenn encouraged Dave to work on a line of breads intended to appeal to younger customers.

What Dahl created were breads so dense with seeds—sunflower, flax, pumpkin and sesame—that the loaves looked like they’d been rolled in a bird feeder. Dahl dubbed the breads “killer.”

He debuted four bread varieties—Killer Bread, Blues Bread, Rockin’ Rye and Good Seed—on Aug. 4, 2005, at the Portland Farmers Market in the Pearl District.

The vegan, USDA-certified organic bread dovetailed with the ascension of boutique grocers like Whole Foods and New Seasons, and patrons willing to pay $5 for an artisanal loaf.

The bakery employs nearly 300 people, producing a line of 15 breads. Until recently, the company was known as NatureBake. Now, everything it sells bears the Dave’s Killer Bread logo.

Its annual sales total $53 million—up from $3 million a decade ago, when the company started shifting its emphasis away from old product lines as Dave’s Killer Bread took off.

“I go out there and tell my story,” Dave Dahl explained to The Register-Guard in Eugene in 2011. “People want to hear it, and they’ll buy my bread.”

The power of that story was made stark by the depths Dahl had reached.

The Dahl family’s third son chafed at his strict Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. He was drinking, smoking weed and taking hallucinogens by the time he was a teenager. “Alcohol seemed pretty cool,” he wrote in a 2008 memoir, Good Seed, “releasing my inhibitions and deadening the pain as I bounced my head off of sidewalks and fists.”

He was tormented by depression. “The strongest memories I have from my childhood,” he writes, “are those of contemplating suicide.”

He dropped out of Gresham High School in 1980, took his first injection of
crystal meth in 1984 and was arrested for the first time in 1987, for burglarizing a house.

Over the years, Dahl was convicted of eight felonies. He did time in Walpole, Mass., for armed robbery. He did a year in Oregon after he shoplifted a $12.99 cellphone accessory from the Wilsonville G.I. Joe’s. He fought with the G.I. Joe’s security guards who stopped him, and he battled Portland cops in 1997 after trying to run away to escape a drug bust.

“Why don’t you just beat me to death,” Dahl asked the arresting officer, “and make us both happy?”

His last and longest stretch, for a meth-dealing conviction, came at Snake River Correctional Institution, the state’s largest prison, located outside the Eastern Oregon desert town of Ontario.

Three years into his stay, Dahl decided to see a prison psychiatrist. Records
show he was prescribed antidepressants. Dahl has said admitting he needed help with mental illness transformed him. He started taking computer-aided drafting classes, and for the first time felt successful.

“I hadn’t found Jesus,” Dahl writes in Good Seed, “but I had found a way of living that gave me the strength to leave the needle behind.”

Dahl’s story and unique bread offered his family’s company what business executives like to call a “killer product” —an item that redefines the market.

But it also created risks the bakery had never faced before.

Richard Shymanski, NatureBake’s longtime sales manager, remembers Dahl pushing aggressively to give his breads a central place in the company. Dahl wanted NatureBake to assign full shifts of workers to his bread. He wanted more space on the company’s shelves in grocery stores.

“We’ve got a 48-year-old product that we’re married to, basically,” recalls
Shymanski. “Here comes Dave with this new product he wanted us to push, and push hard.”

Dahl’s pressure to have his products play a larger role created tensions between Dave, Glenn, and Glenn’s son Shobi Dahl.

Shobi Dahl, 30, graduated in 2005 from Willamette University with a degree in
economics—and joined the family business just as Dave Dahl began making his own breads. Shobi—who rose to become the company CEO before Goode Partners invested last year—worked with his uncle on designing the Dave’s Killer Bread wrappers.

Shobi Dahl declined to speak to WW. An internal 2008 email, first published in a profile of the Dahls by Inc. magazine four years ago, reveals the relationship wasn’t just tense—it was sometimes frightening.

“You are incapable of intelligent conversation that does not involve
yelling,” Shobi wrote to Dave. “You have an ‘I am god of bread, bow down’ aura around you that makes me sick to my stomach…. You threatened to hit me.”

Dave Dahl has said Shobi’s accusations were false. Glenn Dahl told Inc. that Dave never hit Shobi but was sometimes “a fraction of an inch away” from violence.

Shymanski says Dave Dahl won out inside NatureBake because customers demanded his bread.

“He was right in saying we should have been focusing more on his stuff earlier,” Shymanski says. “Dave’s Killer Bread is the biggest explosion I’ve seen in 40 years in the bread business.”

The boom emerged from a decision by the Dahls: They could have just sold great bread, but they decided to put Dave front and center in the marketing scheme.

Each wrapper includes a personal testimony: “15 years in prison is a pretty
tough way to find oneself, but I have no regrets,” Dahl says in one version of the wrapper. “If I had not suffered, I can safely assure you that you would not be reading the label on a loaf of my Killer Bread.”

His fame took off. WW reported Dahl’s comeback story in a 2006 farmers market feature. Since then, profiles of Dahl playing up his prodigal-son story have been run by more than two dozen media outlets, including The Oregonian, 1859 magazine, MSNBC and The New York Times.

Each story repeated Dahl’s turnaround, as summarized by Portland Family magazine: “the formerly depressed, drug-addicted convict-turned-bread guru businessman extraordinaire.”

He told his story to inmates at California’s San Quentin State Prison and to businessmen at the Portland Business Journal‘s annual power breakfast. “You start now,” he told teenagers at Salem’s Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility in 2011. “I don’t have a lot of respect for people who aren’t making changes in their own lives.”

Dave’s Killer Bread took that idea seriously. The company worked closely with mental-health nonprofits. Nearly 30 percent of the company’s employees are ex-cons.

Lee Warren, a convicted felon, started working at NatureBake in January 2011, and left last year to start a bakery for Iron Tribe, a Clackamas-based drug and alcohol recovery program for ex-cons. He’s known Dahl for more than a decade.

“When Dave is Dave,” Warren says, “he’s given so many people second chances.”


It’s not clear when Dave Dahl’s redemption story fell apart. But by the middle of 2011, he was drinking again, according to what three of Dahl’s friends tell WW. It was something he and his family knew could jeopardize the business.

Glenn Dahl and other company officials declined comment on when they knew the company’s icon was drinking.

By last year, the company was looking for outside investors, people who would sink millions into Dave’s Killer Bread to expand the brand, largely on the reputation of Dahl and his clean-living story.

They found one. On Dec. 27, 2012, Dahl announced it himself. “Hey, guys,
I’ve got some killer fucking news,” Dahl said in a Web video, the company bleeping out the obscenity.

The amount the New York-based private equity firm Goode Partners invested in Dave’s Killer Bread has not been made public. Goode Partners’ website, however, says the investment firm usually sinks $10 million to $30 million into its ventures. 

Goode Partners specializes in taking regional brands and launching them
nationally. The firm did this recently with the Austin, Texas-based Mexican restaurant chain Chuy’s.

Perhaps its best-known success is Skullcandy, the Utah headphone manufacturer. Goode invested in the company in 2009. By 2011, it made an initial public offering of stock, which is now traded on the Nasdaq market.

Industry experts say whether or not the Dahls mentioned Dave’s drinking, his addiction history added risk to the purchase.

“It probably wouldn’t stop me from buying,” says John von Schlegell, managing director of Endeavor Capital, a Portland-based private equity firm that has invested in WinCo Foods and New Seasons Market. “It would go into the reward-risk calculations. Everybody knows he had rehab issues, and that’s part of the mystique.”

As part of the deal, Glenn and Shobi Dahl remained on the Dave’s Killer Bread board of directors but stepped down as chairman and CEO, respectively. Dave Dahl remained president of the company.

In 2013, Dahl bought his second house in Milwaukie, and a cabin in Zigzag, a town in Mount Hood National Forest. He also bought a new Chevrolet Corvette and a Cadillac Escalade.

By spring, however, the company knew he was struggling.

In late May, Dahl went to a rehab clinic in Utah, according to two longtime friends. They say he was compelled by an intervention from family and employees. Text messages sent by Dahl to a friend show that by August, after returning from rehab, he was on leave from the bakery.

Other events during the summer point to Dahl drinking to excess.

On Aug. 3, a 39-year-old former meth addict named Christopher Aaron Isaac Dailey went to stay with Dahl for a “boys’ night” at Dahl’s cabin in Zigzag.
Dailey’s family members say he and Dahl met a decade ago in a prison van coming from Snake River Correctional Institution.

What took place at the cabin is recounted in a missing-person report filed on Dailey with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, and statements made by Barbara Lively, Dailey’s longtime partner, more than a week later.

“Mr. Dahl has been having alcohol troubles and believed he needed time with
the guys to cope,” Lively told a sheriff’s detective Aug. 20, according to the report. “She thought Mr. Dahl was also leaning on Mr. Dailey, who had been sober.”

That night, Lively told the detective, Dailey called her to confess he had
been drinking—he told her Dahl had brought booze to the Zigzag cabin. “Ms. Lively said Mr. Dahl had brought the alcohol to the cabin,” the missing-person report says. “She told me she was scared because Mr. Dailey ‘doesn’t mix well with alcohol.'”

At 3:30 the next morning, sheriff records show, Dahl loaned Dailey his Cadillac Escalade. When Dailey didn’t come back, Michelle Bain, Dahl’s fiancee, reported the Escalade stolen.

The Escalade was recovered in Fairview later that day, but Dailey had vanished. On Sept. 24, his body was found in a field alongside a blackberry bramble and a paint shop in Lents. His death is under investigation by Portland police.

Lively blames Dahl for starting the chain of events that led to Dailey’s death. “The person I love was sitting for so long over in those blackberry bushes,” she says. “It just makes me sick.”


Dave Dahl declined through his attorney, Stephen Houze, to answer WW‘s questions regarding Dailey’s death, allegations of his drinking, and the Nov. 14 incidents at the Breadquarters and with Washington County sheriff deputies.

In a statement, Houze said Dahl could not comment because of the pending criminal charges.

“However,” Houze added, “Mr. Dahl and his entire family wish to express their appreciation for the concern, support and respect for his privacy that has been shown by so many during his recent mental health crisis.”

Dave’s Killer Bread has posted an FAQ about the events on Nov. 14 on its website. It poses the question whether Dahl was “under the influence” at the bakery outlet store: €œWe don’€™t know.€ 

About 10 pm on Nov. 14, Washington County sheriff’s deputies responded to a disturbance call at 2455 SW Timberline Drive in Cedar Hills—the home of Bill McShane, a personal investment adviser with Umpqua Investments.

A woman called to report Dahl was acting erratically. Deputies arrived in two patrol cars as Dahl was leaving in his black Cadillac Escalade. He rammed one of the patrol cars head-on. Deputies pursued him in their cars for a half-mile down Timberline Drive. Cornered, Dahl twice rammed another patrol car before being pinned by a third.

The Washington County sheriff and district attorney’s offices declined WW‘s request to release information about whether Dahl had alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of his arrest. Both offices say those records are sealed while the case remains open. McShane bailed Dahl out of jail, and Dahl is on leave as president of the bread company. On Nov. 19, Bain, Dahl’s fiancee, posted a message on her Facebook page she said was written by Dahl.

“The most challenging circumstances can be used to bring about miraculous
change in our lives,” the message says, “and that’s my plan for the future.”

Jerry Gjesvold works with Oregon drug and alcohol treatment center Serenity Lane to help companies develop substance abuse policies. He’s been a recovering alcoholic for 36 years—and says sudden success poses dangers for former addicts.

“When good, positive things start to happen to you,” Gjesvold says, “you feel unworthy. I’m sure that there’s a sense, ‘Do I really deserve this?’ He knew where to go and what to do to not feel that.”

WW asked Glenn Dahl by email what customers should think about his brother’s struggles and what remains of the redemption story that helped sell Dave’s Killer Bread.

€œHealing and recovery is a lifelong process, Glenn Dahl says. Dave is human, and redemption is a journey for all of us.

WW interns Ramona DeNies, Ravleen Kaur and Alex Tomchak Scott contributed to this story.