by Laury Hammel and Gun Denhart
Reprinted from a book that just hit the bookstores, their story about Judy is so inspiring. Of course we have our own local heroes but Judy Wicks is a stunning example of activism, businesswoman, communitarian and politician all rolled up into a fine human being.
Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Café (Philadephia), has committed her life to helping build an economically just and environmentally sustainable world. She sees her business as a player in a myriad of networks that shape our economy, and she seeks to use her entrepreneurial influence to lift up the common good.
Judy understands at a gut level the importance of positive relationships with other local entrepreneurs. For her, it comes naturally; it’s a part of who she is. She cares about the people in her life and she has a deep desire to build harmony in her world. Building strong relationships and empowering all the stakeholders of the White Dog Cafe is embedded in its mission and manifested through it values and practices.
The White Dog Cafe opened for business in 1983 as a take-out coffee and muffin shop on the first floor of Judy’s house. The menu soon expanded to include soup and sandwiches. By 1989 the White Dog had grown to a full-service restaurant, seating over 200 customers, and the adjacent Black Cat Gift Shop had opened its doors.
A turning point in Judy’s life came when she, on Ben Cohen’s suggestion, attended her first SVN [Social Venture Network] conference. She reveled in this newly found community of businesses that shared her values and aimed to change the world. SVN also provided a platform for Judy’s work, and she soon became one of its most visible leaders, serving as chair of SVN.
One day Judy was listening to a tape of a book by John Robbins (the heir to the Baskin-Robbins chain), Diet for a New America. Judy was horrified when she learned about the barbarous way hogs were raised and slaughtered. She knew that she could no longer be a party to this cruel system. She had to do something, but what? Should she become a vegetarian? Should she eliminate meat from the menu?
One morning after several sleepless nights, she walked into the White Dog Cafe kitchen and told her staff that she could no longer participate in a system based on cruelty toward animals. Judy and her chef decided that since people probably wouldn’t give up eating meat anytime soon, the White Dog would continue to offer meat as a culinary choice along with an expanded selection of vegetarian dishes. But they agreed that all White Dog animal products would be purchased from farms that raised and slaughtered animals in a humane way. They took pork off the menu until they could find humanely raised pork to replace it. The chef staff soon learned that the local supplier of their free-range chickens also raised pigs humanely. These hogs were raised in a meadow with enough space to move around, bred naturally, and slaughtered humanely. The chef proceeded to order two pasture-raised pigs a week.
As it turned out, this soul-searching process led to another value-added ingredient in Judy’s business recipe. She had created a market niche for the White Dog Cafe by offering a cruelty-free menu, which gave it a competitive edge over other restaurants in Philadelphia.
But Judy wasn’t finished yet. The more she became involved in the issue of humanely grown meat, the more she realized that if she really wanted to support local farmers, get people to eat humanely grown hogs, and support an alternative to factory farming, she needed to create more demand and encourage other restaurants to join her in purchasing from these local farmers. To be true to her values she moved from making this a niche for her restaurant to working to broaden this practice and inviting other restaurants to join her in serving pasture-raised meat. She began spreading the gospel and soon many local restaurateurs jumped on board, resulting in a sizeable increase in demand for humanely raised pork.
By partnering with local farmers and other restaurant owners, Judy had helped engineer an increase in the demand, but now a new problem arose—the supply of humanely grown pork could not keep up with the growing demand. Judy asked the hog farmer who supplied her with meat if he wanted to expand his business. He was enthusiastic but told her he couldn’t handle the growth without a refrigerated truck. So Judy raised the stakes of her partnership with this supplier: she offered to lend the farmer $30,000 at 5 percent interest to buy a new refrigerated truck to deliver meat to restaurants all over Philadelphia. He took her up on this offer and expanded his business.
Judy was learning about local food systems through first-hand experience. By building strong vendor relationships she had created a solution to her restaurant’s (and neighboring restaurants’) need to serve humanely raised meat, but Judy began thinking bigger. She became active in the national movement to support local hog farming that provides an important alternative to the factory farms that pollute the environment and house tens of thousands of hogs in crowded and inhumane conditions. Eastern Pennsylvania needed an alternative food system that could grow substantial amounts of humanely raised meat, distribute it efficiently, and ensure enough customer demand to make the whole system work economically. So Judy created the White Dog Cafe Foundation, which is funded from 20 percent of the profits of the White Dog Cafe. The first program of the foundation was the Fair Food Project, focusing on building a humane and sustainable local food system.
The foundation then set up the Pig Farmer’s Assistance Project and in collaboration with another foundation awarded $10,000 grants to four pig farmers. The grants were used to expand the pasture-raised, hormone-free pork business. Judy knows the success of her business and the vibrancy of her local economy are directly tied to the success of her business partners. Judy recognized that it isn’t enough to make your own company more socially responsible. Business leaders need to partner with a network of businesses that collectively contribute to building strong local living economies. This understanding played an important role in the establishment of a group Judy and Laury cofounded in 2001—the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). [see ad on the back cover for their Conference in Berkeley.] This international network of local business networks throughout North America has become a leader in supporting the growth of values-driven businesses. Judy also founded a local BALLE network, the Sustainable Business Network of Philadelphia (SBN). SBN is a pioneer in organizing businesses around the building blocks of a strong local living economy—food, energy, clothing, shelter, retailing, and so on. By offering educational programs and networking opportunities for local businesses, SBN is strengthening member companies and helping build a strong Philadelphia economy. Recently, SBN initiated a leading Local First campaign that encouraged citizens to buy from local merchants and to support local agriculture.
Balancing Buying from Local Farmers with Maintaining Consistency and Efficiency
A major component of the White Dog Cafe’s mission is to support local agriculture. The White Dog goes to great lengths to buy locally grown organic produce whenever possible, and it advertises this fact on the menu.
However, major challenges arise when you decide to “go local and organic” because you’re working with an emerging food system that is not fully developed. The White Dog staff must make extra efforts to order food based on when it is ready to harvest, deal with multiple suppliers and distributors, and be prepared to learn at the last minute that an order can’t be filled exactly as it was made. What happens if you don’t need as many vegetables as the farmer brings to your door because he had so many ready to be harvested? Do you buy it all and possibly lose money on the deal? What happens if you run out of local pasture-raised pork? Do you supplement it with pork shipped in long distance? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. The need to provide consistency in the menu and support the cafe staff sometimes conflicts with the sustainable mission of the White Dog.
Judy’s solution to this management tension is to acknowledge the challenges of working locally and organically and to plan accordingly. This means setting up systems, having backup plans, and offering support to those responsible for ordering food and working with vendors. These extraordinary efforts have helped build the White Dog’s reputation as a restaurant committed to local agriculture and as a caring member of the community.
Judy is fully aware of the current fast-food mentality of wanting what we want and wanting it now. However, she understands that nature and sustainable agriculture cannot be treated like a mechanized factory. Sustainable farming involves real plants and real animals that need to be treated with respect and that require great patience. Judy’s very sympathetic to the “slow-food movement,” where the emphasis is on quality, authentic taste, and a pleasurable experience.
Reprinted with permission: Growing Local Value: How to Build Business Partnerships That Strengthen Your Community by Laury Hammel and Gun Denhart (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, paperback original, $12.00, www.bkconnection.com )