Dave's Killer Bread

I spent a few minutes in the lobby of Dave’s Killer Bread’s “World Breadquarters” before my interview appointment and tour of the facility. What I noticed immediately was that everybody was happy to be there. And I do mean everybody. I didn’t see a single person walk by who wasn’t smiling. There were even a few whistlers.

Given that only about half of Americans report being happy at work (and, believe it or not, that’s an 11-year high!), I started to wonder if there was something in the water in Milwaukie, Oregon.

When I met Ronnie Elrod, Dave’s Killer Bread’s newly minted VP of operations, I learned what was so special about this company. It has nothing to do with what’s in the water or even what’s in the bread (though, the bread is in a class of its own, having maintained its position as the #1 organic sliced bread in the nation since May 2014).

What’s so special about Dave’s Killer Bread is its people, many of whom, like Ronnie, have benefited from the company’s Second Chance Employment philosophy.

Ronnie’s story

Ronnie Elrod has been with Dave’s Killer Bread for just over 7 years. He started as an ovens operator. In Ronnie’s time there, the company has experienced phenomenal growth. Ronnie has witnessed five capacity expansions at the plant. Over the years, he worked his way up, and today he’s the highest-ranking person on the Dave’s Killer Bread team.

But to understand what’s really remarkable about Ronnie’s story, you have to go back even further to what he was doing before he became an ovens operator in one of the most successful commercial bakeries in the country.

He wasn’t studying grain science or working in a small family bakery. He wasn’t in an MBA program learning how to run a business. Ronnie was in prison. And with his release date coming up, he was facing an uncertainty common among those with a criminal background, namely, how he would find a job so he could afford a place to live.

“About 10 months before coming home,” Ronnie said, “I picked up an Entrepreneur Magazine and saw an article about Dave’s Killer Bread. I read the article, threw it on the desk, and joked with my cellmates, ‘Here’s a company in Oregon that hires felons. Maybe I’ll get a job there.”

His words turned out to be prophetic. Some of the men at the halfway house Ronnie was released to worked at the company. They got Ronnie an interview, and, two weeks after getting out of prison, Ronnie had a job.

“I became an ovens operator at the age of 50,” he said. “Most of the guys were young, 19 to 25 years old. Soon a betting pool started on how long this old geezer was going to make it.” He stuck it out and soon moved into a supervisory role. “I learned as much of the bakery industry as I could. And that’s how I got to where I am today.”

Ronnie’s story is pretty much a textbook example of inspirational. But it’s not the only one. Not by a long shot. In fact, roughly one-third of Dave’s Killer Bread’s workforce, including half of the employees who work on the floor of its Milwaukie, Oregon, manufacturing facility, have spent some time behind bars.

Dave’s Killer Bread gives people with a criminal background a second chance. This is the secret to their success.

From Portland Farmers Market to international brand

Dave’s Killer Bread grew out of a family business that has always given people a chance to excel.

In 1955, Jim and Wanene Dahl purchased the Midway Bakery. Even as a small employer more than 60 years ago, their focus was on providing opportunities for people who normally faced barriers in the workforce, for example, people with disabilities. The company grew, and in 1984, became NatureBake, one of the first bread companies to experiment with sprouted grains.

One of their sons, Dave, had a rough go. He was in and out of prison four times over 15 years. The fourth time, his older brother Glenn saw a change. And when Dave got out, Glenn gave him a job at the bakery. For six months, Dave worked in an entry-level position to prove that he could stick it out. Then, Glenn gave Dave the challenge of making bread cool again, which wasn’t an easy undertaking during a time when the Atkins diet was popular and people shied away from carbs.

It was a challenge Dave readily embraced. He started developing some recipes, and in 2005, Dave’s Killer Bread debuted at the Portland Farmers Market. It was a huge hit! The company’s growth trajectory since then has been fast and furious. In 2011, Dave’s Killer Bread was one of Inc. Magazine’s 5000 fastest-growing companies. Today, you can find the company’s products at more than 20,000 retail outlets across all 50 states as well as in Canada and Mexico.

Filling the talent pipeline by giving people a second chance

One of the food industry’s biggest challenges today is a talent shortage. Everyone’s wondering where they will find the next generation of workers.

The bakery industry has been one of the hardest-hit sectors. A survey by the American Bakers Association and the American Society of baking found that bakery professionals are needed across the board, from engineering and maintenance to R&D, product development, and skilled production management. This problem is expected to get worse by the middle of the next decade.

But it’s a problem that Dave’s Killer Bread has never experienced. While many in the industry are asking, “Where have all the bakers gone?” Dave’s Killer Bread has always had more candidates than they have jobs for, even as they’ve grown from about 80 employees to more than 300 in the past few years.

Genevieve Martin, Executive Director of the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, which works to promote the adoption of Second Chance Employment by other businesses, said: “We started growing and growing and growing, and building the bridge as we crossed it. We started recruiting local folks who were re-entering the community after incarceration because we understand the challenges they face coming back into the community.”

The word got out that Dave’s Killer Bread was a second chance employer. And all of a sudden, the company had an abundance of eager applicants.

Ronnie explains the phenomenon well: “When you give someone like me a job, you get someone who is highly motivated and intensely loyal to the company that gave them a living wage in a job with career potential. We know the opportunities are few and far between.”

The fact that Dave’s Killer Bread is a second chance employer has an even wider-reaching impact on their candidate pool. Gretchen Peterson, who is the company’s head of HR, notes that many people are attracted the second chance advocacy program, even if they don’t have a criminal background.

“Two-thirds of our partners don’t have criminal backgrounds,” Gretchen said. “But they’re excited to work here because they believe in what we’re doing. We have a great environment and culture that draws people to the company. And our Second Chance Employment philosophy is a positive thing that people want to support.”

Helping others become second chance employers

The team at Dave’s Killer Bread doesn’t just want to attract more employees for themselves. They want to help companies in all industries take advantage of this underutilized group of workers. To that end, they started the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation, an organization devoted to powering Second Chance Employment by educating employers about what it means.

So, what does it take to be a Second Chance Employer?

Surprisingly little. What it boils down to is basically just taking background off the table and hiring the best candidate for the job.

Genevieve said that many employers think there are legal or other barriers to hiring people with a criminal background, or that there’s a specific program with steps you have to take. But that’s simply not true. “If you already have best employment practices in place, you can do this tomorrow. The next person you need to hire, start looking at this part of the workforce. There are few positions where this would become a potential issue.”

As part of her work with the foundation, Genevieve leads educational Second Chance Summits around the country. “So many people say, ‘we don’t hire people with backgrounds,’” she said. “It’s an easy way to filter people out of the hiring pool. But what we say is that you may be missing your very best talent.”

In truth, they may be missing out on a very large part of the talent pool. More than 70 million Americans have a record of some kind, even if it doesn’t come up on a background check. That’s about one in four people, meaning that “we all probably know someone or several someones with a background.”

Here are the most common obstacles to hiring people with a background, and Genevieve’s answers to them.

Common perceptions of a person with a background are wrong

It’s easy to get scared from watching the news. And, understandably, employers don’t want any kind of criminal activity going on their business.

But, Genevieve says, the news doesn’t paint an accurate portrait of the situation. “The people you see on Law & Order aren’t the ones you’re going to get applying for a job. They’re either making poor decisions on the street or they’re currently incarcerated. They aren’t actively seeking employment.”

Employers believe that something in their company would have to change

Genevieve often hears comments like, “Oh, Second Chance Employment is great…for you. But my insurance won’t let me.” This isn’t true. An employer’s premiums do not necessarily change. In fact, depending on the nature of your jobs and industry Second Chance Employment doesn’t affect your insurance policy at all.

Other employers believe that their hiring process might have to change. This is also a myth.

For the summits, Genevieve brings along an insurance broker and an employment lawyer to help answer these types of questions and quell any fears.

Employers are afraid of bad PR

Finally, companies are afraid that if they hire someone with a background, they’ll get bad press. According to Genevieve, that never happens. “We have not had bad PR due to these employment practices and neither have the employers we work with. We’ve never had a negative news story that affected our business or our customer base. In contrast, whenever we post something about our Second Chance advocacy, customers love us even more.”

As proof of this, just check out the social media community, known as the BreadHead Nation. The company has almost 850,000 Facebook fans. And Genevieve says that any time they post anything about the Second Chance advocacy program, they get thousands of people responding very positively and sharing the content with others.

Second chance employment in the food industry

While Genevieve works with companies in many different industries to promote second chance employment, she notes that the food industry is particularly interesting and that food companies are often excellent partners.

“Even with automation, the food industry still requires people to do the work,” she said. “There’s a huge supply chain of need, and that means a lot of opportunity. There’s still a lot of manual labor, which provides an exceptional opportunity to work your way up from the bottom. And if you can get into an organization with succession planning and leadership opportunities, why wouldn’t you stay there?”

Ronnie invites people to visit the Dave’s Killer Bread facility and see how well it works firsthand. “If you’re nervous, come take a tour of the facility,” he says. “Everybody who walks off our production floor says, ‘Wow! Everyone is happy and engaged!’ How do you create that kind of engagement? Become a Second Chance Employer. After all, who do you want to work with: someone with an attitude of gratitude or a sense of entitlement? I’d rather have someone with an attitude of gratitude.”

If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a Second Chance Employer, check out the Dave’s Killer Bread Foundation’s website. There, you’ll find the schedule for upcoming summits as well as a Second Chance Playbook full of resources to help you get started.

Looking to the future: More advocacy and more delicious bread

As for what’s coming down the line, everyone believes organics will continue to grow. This will undoubtedly be true. Over the past decade, the organic market has grown by leaps and bounds, far outstripping the food industry as a whole.

Fortunately, the conditions are in place to support this growth. It takes three years to transition a field from non-organic to organic. Since many farmers started making the transition a few years ago, more land will be available soon, so this will be less of a pinch point.

For the company, they hope to continue their growth trajectory. “What we do isn’t easy,” said Ronnie. “If it was, everybody would be doing it. We’ve had a really good problem for the last 10 years, which is keeping up with the growth we’re experiencing in terms of equipment, people, and capacity. Every time we put in new equipment, we’ve outgrown it before it’s even up and running.”

Genevieve hopes that over the next 10 years, she’ll work herself out of a job. “Having to advocate for Second Chance Employment shouldn’t be a thing.” Let’s all support her in making this particular hope come true!

If you’re in the Portland area, be sure to stop by Dave’s Killer Bread! Hit the retail store for some of “the best bread in the universe.” Ronnie recommends a toasted PB&J on the company’s signature Blues Bread.