Dave’s Killer Bread (DKB) pulls no punches. Its marketing campaign takes no prisoners. Dave’s is a brand with chutzpah.

Brash, audacious and uncompromising, the Milwaukie, OR-based company boasts it has “The Best Bread in the Universe.” The products are not simply baked in the oven. Rather, they’re “baked boldly,” and of course, the bakery adds, “Can’t fake bold.”

What’s bold? It’s bread made with “killer taste and texture,” according to Michelle Hunt, vice-president of marketing. Many of DKB’s loaves weigh in at a hefty 25 to 27 oz and are all USDA-certified organic and Non-GMO Project Verified. The breads, most of which are also vegan, are loaded with omega-3s, protein and fiber but contain no dough conditioners, artificial preservatives, artificial ingredients or high-fructose corn syrup. The products are packed with whole grains and, in most cases, seeds — not only throughout the bread but also around the loaf and even on the heels.

The line includes Dave’s top-selling variety, 21 Whole Grains and Seeds, touted as “perfect for sandwiches and toast,” followed by Good Seed, described as the seediest and sweetest bread in the portfolio. Core items also include Blues Bread rolled in organic blue cornmeal and Powerseed with high fiber and protein as well as Rockin’ Rye, Spelt and Sprouted Wheat. The company also offers Sin Dawg, a seeded, decadently sweet cinnamon bread that’s shaped more like a baguette — or hot dog bun for that matter — and features a gooey cinnamon filling inside.

“There is simply nothing like it in       the market,” Ms. Hunt observed.

And calories count — in a big way. In fact, DKB’s fastest-growing breads are the recently introduced thin-sliced versions of its 21 Whole Grains and Seeds and Good Seeds because the slices contain only 60 to 70 Cal each. Earlier this year, the bakery rounded out its line to 12 items by rolling out a Seeded Honey Wheat with nearly 3 oz of pure organic honey in each loaf and a 100% Whole Wheat bread, its first organic variety without seeds and whole grains.

In the bread aisle, where a sea of sameness often prevails, Dave’s Killer Bread strives to break with convention and stir up the waters, noted John Tucker, president and CEO.

“We’re a nonconformist company,” he explained. “We see ourselves as being disruptive and willing to take risks.”

Disruptive, he added, is a good thing.

Boldly moving forward

Those risks now involve taking the brand, today sold in select markets in 17 states throughout the West and Northwest, and branching it out coast-to-coast, starting by the end of this year, according to Mr. Tucker.

To raise retailer awareness, the $70 million company attended the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery trade show held this past June in Denver, CO, where its black, white and red “Baked Boldly” message plastered the booth. Earlier this year, Ms. Hunt noted, DKB “assaulted” Natural Products Expo West for the second time, and more than 400 voting members of the media named its 21 Whole Grain and Seeds bread as one of the “Best of West” at the show.

However, because the nutritionally power-packed loaves sell for around $5 a loaf, going national doesn’t mean that the brand will blanket the country or be sold in every retailer or every market. Rather, Mr. Tucker noted the company is analyzing consumer trends and compiling demographic, household consumption and supermarket scanning data to highlight opportunities and identify what he calls “white ­spaces” in the market.

In some cases, Ms. Hunt suggested, expanding the bakery’s geographic footprint will involve a retailer-by-retailer approach. The key is “seeding the market,” which allows DKB to selectively collaborate with potential customers who identify most strongly with the brand. “It all starts with our retail partners,” she said. “The bread needs to be a perfect match, and we need to work with our retail partners to help us find the right consumers.”

Dave’s management team refers to the bakery’s targeted consumers as “good lifers” — typically females in their 30s and 40s, who do the primary shopping for their households and are searching for natural, simple and organic baked goods. “She cares what’s in her food, she’s willing to pay more for it, and she’s the person who is helping to fuel the organic and natural foods growth,” Ms. Hunt observed.

Dave’s triple threat

In many ways, DKB is a relatively new bakery and the brand reflects the brash personality of founder Dave Dahl. It romanticizes his ponytailed, rock ’n roll image, symbolized on every bag by a bold red logo of him complete with guitar.

A self-proclaimed four-time loser, Mr. Dahl spent 15 years in prison for drugs, assault and burglary but, in 2004, was given a $12 an hour job by his older brother Glenn Dahl at NatureBake, the family bakery founded by their parents in 1955.

In 2005, an inspired Dave developed the first four of what he called “killer” breads that were so distinct that they quickly went from popular sellers at the Portland Farmers Market to linchpins in local retailers throughout the Northwest and beyond.

But the brand quickly became about more than high-quality breads. Dave’s Killer Bread reflected the idea of giving people a second chance. About one-third of its 287 partners — as the company refers to its employees — are ex-cons. The bakery’s lobby is filled with plaques recognizing the company’s contributions to the community. Its carefully crafted website and social media outlets actively engaged consumers and soon developed a passionate following of 100,000 BreadHeads. (See “Building a Breadhead Nation” on Page 12.)

“Dave’s brings a triple threat,” Mr. Tucker explained. “If you look at the nutritional aspect, the product is superior to much of the bread that’s out there. We’re also a company that is about making change and about letting felons have a second chance.”

With Dave, Glenn and his son, Shobi Dahl, at the helm, sales shot up between 40% and 100% annually. Keeping an eye on the national landscape and needing assistance to keep pace with the explosive growth, the Dahls in December 2012 sold 50% of the business to Goode Partners, a New York-based investment firm.

“Goode Partners came in to provide additional financial support, expand the brand, invest in the facility and improve operations,” Mr. Tucker noted.

Shoulders of giants

Today, the management team comprises representatives from the old and the new. Mr. Tucker, for example, joined the company in 2013 and is a former CEO of an Oregon dairy-free foods company that expanded from  $1.8 million to more than $125 million in sales. Ms. Hunt previously served as a marketing executive at Kettle Foods, maker of the popular kettle-cooked potato chip brand. Meanwhile, Dan Letchinger, product manager, started out working as a slicer seven years ago before joining the marketing department, and Ronnie Elrod came up through the ranks to become plant manager.

Other key executives include Marty Nash, vice-president of operations; Greg Intlekofer, vice-­president of sales; Scott Bowman, CFO; Ron Milio, supply chain director, Rob Clamp, chief engineer; Stephanie Files, sanitation manager; and Gina Delahunt, human resources manager.

While Glenn, Shobi and Dave Dahl are no longer involved in day-to-day operations, they are actively engaged as members of the board. Their presence lives on in the company’s image, brand, products and culture, according to Mr. Tucker.

“We’re charged with standing on the shoulders of giants,” he explained. “We’re managing an organization that’s giving consumers a clean-label, great-tasting, organic, Non-GMO Project Verified product, but we’re doing it in a way that has a positive impact on the community by giving people second chances and creating lasting change.”

Continually improving

Production runs seven days a week at the Milwaukie facility, which houses two production lines, including a 2-year-old line that produces between 2,500 and 5,000 loaves an hour — or between 300,000 and 400,000 weekly — depending on the product. A second line can crank out 3,600 loaves an hour, serves as a backup and provides additional production when volume surges due to promotional activity.

Overall, the 54,000-sq-ft plant provides 25,500 sq ft for processing, 14,500 sq ft for packaging, 11,000 sq ft for warehousing and the rest for offices. In addition to the main production floor, the facility houses a retail shop called the Healthy Bread Store, where it sells imperfect products as well as sample prototypes.

“If we develop a new product, we can use the Healthy Bread Store to get real time feedback from consumers,” Mr. Letchinger noted.

During Baking & Snack’s visit in April, DKB was building a new R&D and quality assurance department to step up new product and food safety initiatives. Already operating under a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan, the operation is ­currently working to become Safe Quality Food certified.

To maximize efficiencies, Mr. Elrod said the operation relies on lean manufacturing practices and 6S — safety, sort, set, shine, standardize and sustainability — to organize work areas, eliminate bottlenecks and improve product quality and consistency.

The bakery relies on a red-tagging process to improve workflow design. If equipment is malfunctioning, operators write work orders to move repairs to the top of the maintenance to-do list.

During the past two years, the company also has invested significantly to streamline the operation, minimize changeovers, improve ergonomics and reduce the manual labor in the process.

In addition to the new makeup line, DKB automated ingredient handling, depanning, cooling and packaging. Mr. Nash, a seventh-generation baker who joined the company last year, noted the investments lengthened runs, increased quality and boosted throughput by maximizing every inch in the facility.

However, he added, getting feedback from line operators on everything from safety and sanitation to removing bottlenecks is critical to improving the operation and has been implemented just within the last nine months. “We’re proud of what our partners have achieved in organizing the work area and how they realize they can ­effect change and improve their work stations,” Mr. Nash explained. “It’s amazing how this has taken hold on the production floor. It’s not a large bakery in square footage, but our partners have been able to create more room by organizing and realizing what is needed — and not needed — on the production floor.”

The nerve center

Typically, Mr. Elrod said, it takes about seven hours to make a loaf of Dave’s Killer Bread from mixing through packaging. Although about 160 people work in production, only 39 operators are on the production floor at any given time because the company staggers its shifts during the lengthy process. Mixer operators come in first, followed by makeup operators 90 minutes later, then proofing, baking and, finally, packaging operators.

DKB recently installed a Flexicon batching system that delivers major ingredients from liquid totes and five 2,000-lb supersack unloading stations. Previously, workers loaded 50-lb bags into mixers, or a total of about 14,000 lb of heavy lifting during an entire shift.

“We’ve taken a lot of labor out of the operation,” Mr. Elrod said.

All organic flour comes from Montana while Bob’s Red Mill, located across the street, supplies 30% of its other ingredients.

He described the mixing department as the “nerve center” of the bakery. To remind employees of this fact, signs in the area ask, “Who’s killing it?” when it comes to making the bread.

The mixing process actually requires four steps, beginning with presoaking the seeds to hydrate and soften them as well as add moisture to the final product and, thus, secure an 11-day ambient shelf life. Next, key major ingredients are added or metered into Hobart spiral mixers to create 450-lb sponges that have varied rest times, the third step. Fourth, Diosna spiral mixers create 450-lb batches of dough.

In the summertime, the bakery uses a Maja flake ice system to chill doughs during final mixing. While the first three steps of the mixing process follow key performance indicators, Mr. Elrod noted the final mix is more instinctual and is done only by the most experienced partners.

 “What makes our bread so unique is the difficulty of the process and the people who produce it,” Mr. Elrod said. “You can’t make this product correctly without the support and total buy-in from our partners.

 “Their job is to read the dough, and as it’s mixed, pull it out and test its strength and elasticity,” he said. “We put only our best, most capable people at this station. Nobody walks into this bakery and starts working at this station. The senior partner on the mixing staff runs the final dough mixer and is someone who has worked at all of the previous mixing stations and understands the process entirely.”

Next, the dough is processed with a Werner & Pfleiderer bread production line engineered and supplied by Gemini Bakery Equipment. After a dough trough lift elevates the mixer bowl to the hopper, the bread is produced by a Gemini/Werner & Pfleiderer four-pocket divider and cone rounder, intermediate proofer with a 4-minute intermediate proof. The dough pieces then travel through an eight-roller sheeter-moulder before entering Dave’s proprietary wetting and seeding process. Mr. Elrod noted the line often produces only about 60 loaves a minute because of the unique whole grain, seedy nature of the dough.

Next, operators manually place loaves into four-strap pans and rack the pans. After an extended period in a 55-rack proof box, the loaves baked in 26 Baxter and Revent ovens added over the years by the bakery. If the facility had space, Mr. Nash noted the company easily could automate proofing and baking without compromising on quality.

After passing through a new Capway depanner, products cool on two G&F spiral conveyors for about 1 hour. The bread then passes through one of two Bettendorf Stanford slicers to Formost bagging systems and through Kwik Lok bag closers and Fortress metal detectors. DKB recently added a Formost Fuji double bagger for club store accounts.

While the bakery delivers the product fresh to accounts in the metropolitan Portland area, the bulk of the organic breads are frozen, distributed by brokers or third parties and slacked out at retailers.

Race against time

Because of the long, difficult process, Dave’s Killer Bread is often imitated but never duplicated, according to Gabrielle Enfield, brand manager.

“We talk about how our breads are powerfully different, and that’s because of the process,” she said. “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

The company, however, now has a sense of urgency to expand the brand as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“I’ve learned from my experience that first-to-market usually wins,” Mr. Tucker noted. “When you have something as unique as Dave’s, you don’t want to leave the door open for anyone to come in and steal your thunder. I often talk about speed-to-market and how it will be much easier if we’re first on the shelf. It’s that simple.

“The question is, ‘Can we do that?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, we can,’ ” he added. “We are laying the framework to achieve this.”

For Dave’s Killer Bread, the past nine years has had its twists and turns.

Now, the specialty bakery is on a trek to boldly go where it has never gone before.