When people ask Judy Wicks how she got into the restaurant business, she loves to tell them it was by accident. And she means it. In spring 1971 she had just left her first husband, Richard Hayne, with whom, in 1970, she'd founded the Free People's Store (now Urban Outfitters). In fact, she had just left her husband and was driving away from the West Philadelphia apartment where she and Hayne lived. Half a block from the apartment, she ran a red light and smashed into another car. Jobless and broke, she poured out her sob story to a man on the street who, lucky for her, worked at a nearby restaurant that needed a waitress--a job Wicks was happy to take and at which she stayed for 13 years.
Her rise from waitress to management at Sansom Street's La Terrasse ended in disappointment when the cafe's owner did not, as she expected, make her co-owner. But by that time Wicks was running a muffin shop out of the first floor of her brownstone down the block, and one morning in 1984, when she had breakfast customers out the door, she left La Terrasse and expanded the White Dog Cafe's menu for the first of many times.
Today the White Dog Cafe is a Philly institution, and it's come far since the muffin shop days. Dinner entrees now average $20 a plate, and the cafe has expanded into nearby brownstones. The White Dog is also a local center for progressive politics and practices, hosting events ranging from lectures by activist authors to whimsical celebrations like the annual "Dance of the Ripe Tomatoes," an autumn fete for organic farmers. Since the late 1980s Wicks has been "eating with the enemy" at restaurants in countries like Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Cuba. She calls the program "Table for Six Billion, Please!"
But for all her global efforts, her most revolutionary acts have taken place on the West Philly block where she has lived for 33 years. The White Dog and Wicks's adjoining Black Cat retail store are the first Pennsylvania businesses run solely on electricity that is generated by wind power. She sources most meats and vegetables from Philadelphia-area organic farms, and she goes out of her way--by loaning local farmers money for supplies, for example--to help local businesses flourish.
Wicks is a community builder, the queen of what she calls "small-to-small relationships." She's a co-founder of BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and she stirs debates, even
in the green business world, when she proclaims things like "Businesses should not grow bigger!" and scolds entrepreneurs for opening "cookie-cutter businesses" instead of meeting the actual needs of their local economy. For her part, Wicks distributes 20% of the White Dog's profits to a foundation she set up to support a range of local nonprofits and social justice groups.
Wicks hopes Grace, her 24-year-old daughter, will someday help run the restaurant, but at the moment she has no problem holding the reins. She loves the merry-making at parties; she loves watching children in photographs from her Pajama Party Brunch grow up to bring their own children back in pajamas. She likens her feeling for her business to that of farmers for their land. "My business," she says, "is really a way of expressing my love of life."--Jess McCuan
Jess McCuan is a staff reporter.