Good Life

Creating a community: Author works toward sustainable economy

Judy Wicks had an easy day at the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network symposium held last week at The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel. She gave the opening keynote address and then situated herself for a book sale and signing in the hallway.

About 30 minutes later, Lauren Smith, her assistant for the day from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, closed up shop with a sign that read “Sold Out” and gave instructions about how to acquire Wick’s latest book, “Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Power of Love and Compassion in Building the New Economy” online, through her website, http://judywicks .com

Clearly, the crowd in the Presidents Hall was smitten by what Wicks had to say and eager to read more of her message.

The crowd that morning was 98 percent female and all engaged, or hoping to become engaged, in some aspect of farming or food production as a livelihood. The 125 attendees included Centre County farmers like Lyn Garling and Patty Neiner, from Over the Moon Farm in Rebersburg, who raise pastured meats; Leslie Zuck, from Common Ground Organic Farm and executive director at Pennsylvania Certified Organic; Eda Case, from Patchwork Farm; and Deb Fisher, owner/designer of Deb’s Flower Farm, both mainstays at local farmers markets.

Many attendees looked young, bright-eyed and on the verge, ready to tackle the rigors of a demanding lifestyle. All shared an entrepreneurial spirit, which is what Wick’s memoir celebrates in detail.

Wicks grew up in Ingomar, north of Pittsburgh, and opened her presentation with a sepia-toned slide that showed the crossroads on the main drag — a fire hall and a beer distributor that sold Rolling Rock and Iron City. The small town contained all that the members of the community needed — “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker” — and shopping consisted of visiting the small shops and engaging with each of the owners on a regular basis.

“These were the foundational relationships of community that I witnessed as a young child,” Wick said.

Also seminal in her upbringing was the year after college spent in Alaska as a Vista volunteer; she lived in an Eskimo village and experienced a different type of economy, one based on cooperation and sharing rather than hoarding and competition.

“In our consumer society, we create envy through advertising and it drives the economy. We base our success on what we have. There, the Eskimos share everything and, through the sharing, create community.”

Her first foray in business was a clothing store in West Philadelphia, the Free People’s Store, with then-husband, Dick Hayne. The marriage dissolved after two years, but the store didn’t. Hayne grew the business to become Urban Outfitters. Wicks “accidentally” found herself in the food service industry at La Terrasse restaurant on Sansom Street and commenced “12 years of on-the-job training for opening my own restaurant right down the street.”

White Dog Café, the iconic brand that Wicks created, started in 1983 as a muffin shop in the first floor of the house she lived in.

Eventually it grew into a 250-seat, full-service restaurant and gift shop in five adjoining brownstone row houses that sourced local ingredients and paid a living wage to every member of the staff, including dishwashers and busboys.

Her book details the transformation — the initial outdoor grill in the backyard because there was no money to put in the fire suppression system and exhaust, tables and chairs dragged down from upstairs to create seating for enthusiastic diners, juggling child care and business under the same roof. Everyone in the crowd could relate to her challenges.

The fact that Wicks not only survived but thrived is testimony to her belief in the power of love.

“Love and compassion can bring transformative change,” she stated, to the nodding heads in the audience.

What Wicks was really creating there on Sansom Street, after she helped rescue the block from developers that wanted to put in a strip mall with chain stores, was her own community, much like the one she grew up in.

“Chains are invasive species; they choke out the local businesses. We can grow our business in our own eco-system that we create.”

To this end, she connected with local farmers, including some in the Lancaster area where her ancestors had settled 300 years ago. She sold only local vegetables and meats raised humanely.

American wine and beers produced locally, including her own Stoudt’s label “Leg Lifter Lager,” were on the menu exclusively. And her passion for local and sustainable was contagious; people flocked to the White Dog for delicious food and for stimulating talks about climate change and other environmental and social issues.

Once Wicks created a successful empire with White Dog, she did something that most business owners don’t do — she gave the money away. She initiated a mentoring program and brought in students from the nearby West Philly high school to introduce them to food service and farming.

She partnered with restaurants in Russia, Mexico and Vietnam to provide an outreach mission for her staff.

She supported a Mexican coffee cooperative in Chiapas that was under assault from agri-business conglomerates that tried to move the indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

Her social activism is rooted in economic justice. Encouraged by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s, Wicks attended a Social Venture Network meeting in 1993 and said, “At last, I have found ‘my people’ ” and joined the ranks of the growing national movement for socially responsible business. In 2001, she founded Fair Food Philly, which connects local farms to the large marketplace of restaurants and stores in the metropolitan area.

That same year, she co-founded the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, with Boston business owner Laury Hammel.

In 2009, Wicks sold the White Dog Café to concentrate on her humanitarian and social efforts.

She is determined to continue to combat corporate globalization through nurturing sustainable ecosystems where social justice is a priority.

“We need to change our measure of success,” said Wicks. “Money and size do not define success. Strong community and a healthy environment measure success.”

When her book tour ends in May, she plans to get to work on a companion volume targeted at young entrepreneurs. Her goal is to reach the students in the business schools and convince them that sustainable business practices are the way to build the new economy.

Judging from the standing ovation and the looks of assent on the faces in the room at The Penn Stater, Wicks has 125 entrepreneurs on her side.