Judy Wicks is an impressive force in the Philadelphia community: she is the founder of the Sustainable Business Network and the non-profit organization Fair Food, the former owner of the White Dog Café, and the author of the memoir Good Morning, Beautiful Business. She spoke with Ambler Food Co-op members and the general public about the positive impact local businesses have on communities at the second event in the Food for Thought Education Series, sponsored by Ambler Food Co-op this past Wednesday, May 6.
During her presentation Ms. Wicks told stories of her life and businesses that consistently came down to her guiding principles, which include fostering community involvement, encouraging sustainable business, and supporting the local food supply. For her, money is simply a tool of business, not necessarily the goal: businesses are about relationships with the people you buy from, the people you sell too, and even nature.
Ms. Wicks' love of life, nature, animals, community and good food began in her hometown of tiny Ingomar, PA, where she first realized the connection between sustainability and community, and how relationships that formed from community life helped businesses develop and thrive.
In the late '60's Ms. Wicks and her first husband served as VISTA volunteers among the native Eskimo population of Alaska where she was amazed by the culture of sharing and cooperation she witnessed. The Eskimos believed that happiness was dependent on a sense of community rather than material goods.
After returning from Alaska Ms. Wicks and her husband took the total amount of $3,000 they had received upon discharge and opened the Free People store at 43rd St. and Locust St. in Philadelphia, where they bought and up-cycled items in a creative way in order to make a profit. Living and working in the University City neighborhood of Philadelphia, she learned about the importance of choosing a place in which to live and work, and how to take responsibility for the food, water and waste that’s consumed and produced there. She stated that when you live and work in the same community, you want to make good decisions for your community and hold the same community values at both home and work, rather than divorcing yourself from your “work community.”
In 1983 Ms. Wicks founded the White Dog Café on the first floor of her row home in West Philadelphia. Over 26 years of ownership, the White Dog helped her live the principles of sustainability and community she had already been fostering for years. In 1985 she discovered the existence of small, independent microbreweries and decided to offer fresh, local beer only, starting with Stoudts Brewery, who also produced a private label beer for the White Dog Café. She made a voluntary commitment to invest in her employees by paying all of them a living wage. She invested her personal money in the Reinvestment Fund of Philadelphia to support other local businesses. She created a mentoring program for teens who were interested in the restaurant business at West Philadelphia High School. And she combated climate change by making the White Dog Café the first business in Pennsylvania to buy all of their electricity through renewable resources. She led many trips of White Dog Café employees and customers to places in need, such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The big transitional moment in her life, Ms. Wicks said, came after she switched all of the White Dog Café’s products to socially responsible and sustainable ones, such as using all free-range and cage-free meats and dairy products, rather than those that came from factory farms. She originally felt that having this cruelty-free business practice would set her business apart from her competition, but came to realize that in order to create the truly sustainable community she wished for, she should encourage as many others as possible to follow her example, and so shared her supply lists with other local restaurants.
Ms. Wicks encouraged those in attendance to re-imagine the concept of business growth and that our authenticity of relationships with our communities allows our businesses to grow deeper rather than necessarily expanding wider. She emphasized that the collective joy we find in working together toward a shared vision for our community is the ultimate goal and reward.
Ms. Wicks sold the White Dog Café in 2009, but began the non-profit Fair Food in 2000, which has a farm stand at the Reading Terminal Market, selling products from hundreds of local food growers and producers.
After the talk Ms. Wicks sold and signed copies of her memoir, Good Morning, Beautiful Business, which details her life and community building work.
The talk was fascinating, as it was illustrated with details about Ms. Wicks’ life, but also inspiring for what it means to be a part of Ambler Food Co-op. The Judy Wicks story reminds us of our goal to create a community space and fulfill a need in Ambler Borough, a need for a store that will support local farmers and food producers, be kind to our environment through limiting the miles our food has traveled and supporting sustainable growing practices, and support all the people of the Borough and surrounding areas in obtaining consistent access to fresh, local, healthy food.