“Business is about relationships.” Says Judy Wicks, Founder of Philadelphia’s famous White Dog Cafe and pioneer of the local food movement. Fostering strong and empathetic relationships with employees, community, and the land are what Wicks credits as the foundation to her successful endeavors as both a business owner and a leader of national and local nonprofit organizations.
On October 16th, Wicks was the latest speaker in Temple University Library’s fall 2013 “Beyond the Page” public program series Gather Round the Table: Conversations on the History, Impact and Implications of Food in Our Society. In her presentation “Good Morning, Beautiful business” (named for the title of her recent memoir), Wicks shared her story of compassionate economics based in empathy and respect for world around her.
Wicks’ story begins in University City circa 1970, when her and her then-husband Dick Haynes founded The Free People Store, a retail establishment specializing in locally sourced merchandise and decorated using recycled goods to create a DIY/earth-friendly aesthetic. Though Wicks and Haynes would split only a year later (Haynes would go on to expand the Free People brand to create the Urban Outfitters retail empire), it took only a short time for her to become involved in the local restaurant scene, eventually opening The White Dog Café on the ground floor of her home in 1983.
Witnessing the negative effects that the practices of national chains were having on the local economy, Wicks set out to create a business that was their antitheses, working to create a business with deep and sustainable roots in Philadelphia and in her University City community. This manifested itself as a commitment to living wages, humanely sourced food, local beverage (The White Dog Café was a pioneer in Philadelphia’s now-famous craft beer scene), and community outreach. In the case of the latter, The White Dog Café regularly held open holiday celebrations, educational public presentations, and workshops organized in tandem with West Philadelphia High School to create an awareness of sustainable nutrition in the community.
Wicks’ civic focus eventually expanded to activism beyond the White Dog Café to a national level. In 2009 Wicks sold the Café to focus on several nonprofit organizations devoted to sustainable and local businesses: the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), The Sustainable Business Network of Philadelphia, and Fair Food. The spirit of these organizations of these, Wicks says, is to help businesses to make decisions that are a marriage of the heart and the head, allowing them to profit while responsibly serving and interacting with the community.
“Good Morning, Beautiful Business” is a reminder that values need not be left at home. By fostering real and meaningful relationships in business, Wicks is an example of how this phrase can be taken beyond the page and used to create business that can strengthen our relationships with both each other and the world.