by Dave Wann
For twenty-six years, restaurateur Judy Wicks poured her energies into the White Dog Café in Philadelphia. Though the restaurant started and remained relatively small, there have been many other ways that Wicks has measured growth. She’s never bought into the dominant paradigm that growth is defined solely by increased profits.
Judy does not believe that economic exchange can be one of the most satisfying and meaningful ways that humans interact. As Wicks sees it, growth is also about increasing knowledge; expanding consciousness; developing creativity, deepening relationships, increasing happiness and well being – and having fun.
“Money is simply a tool, she emphasizes. “Business should really be about relationships – with everyone we buy from and sell to, everyone we work with, and with the Earth itself.” Wicks made a conscious decision to stay small; to be one special restaurant rather than a chain. She hung a sign in her closet that she’d see each morning: “Good morning beautiful business.”
The sign reminded her of the farmers who were already out in the fields picking fresh organic fruits and vegetables; and the pigs, cows, chickens that were out in the pastures, enjoying the morning sun and fresh air.
She would think of the restaurant’s bakers coming early in the morning to put cakes and pies in the oven, and she’d even remember the growers down in Chiapas, Mexico, growing the organic fair trade coffee beans that made her restaurant so fragrant each morning.
The relationships and beauty she’s after have been reflected over the years in various programs, activities and spin-offs. For example, her decision to pay staff a “living wage” was the result of her realization that the people she worked with were very important to both her and the business.
A living wage is a voluntary commitment by a business owner to pay employees the minimum amount needed to cover the cost of living in a particular location. It’s typically far above the federally mandated minimum wage, and at first Wicks refused to consider it.
Then one day she stood in the kitchen with three of her kitchen staff as they chopped vegetables and sliced meat. “Looking at their faces, I had an instant realization,” she recalls. “Of course I wanted to pay Brian, Tyrone and James enough to live on – to buy food, clothes, pay their rent and other expenses. How could I not pay people working at the White Dog enough to cover basic needs?”
Another epiphany came when she drove to a favorite hiking location, a forest north of Philadelphia. “The beautiful ferns that I loved were crumpled to the ground like brown tissue paper because of the drought we were having,” she recalls. “And the creek, once rushing waist-deep, had no water at all, only dust-covered rocks.
‘This is what it will be like, I thought, when global warming brings drought and fire to some parts of the world and storms and floods to others.’” Her personal connection with nature prompted a commitment to purchase 100 percent of the restaurant’s electricity from renewable sources.
The White Dog became known for serving healthy food from local sources. It was worth the extra effort to her for several reasons: the direct relationships with farmers and growers build community and provide transparency about quality; local food reduces “food miles” and carbon emissions; and the much fresher food is superior in taste and nutrition.
She was especially concerned about the drawbacks of standard factory and feedlot farming of livestock, so she made an effort to find local sources of grass-fed beef and pasture-raised pork. Still another chapter in her business evolution followed an “aha” realization that she was part of a much wider food system.
Judy became as much an activist as business owner, sharing her hard-earned market niche with other restaurants throughout the city. “I had to move from a competitive mentality to one of cooperation in order to build a local economy based on humane and sustainable farming.”
The White Dog soon became an education and support center. When the farmer who supplied the restaurant with organic pork needed a refrigerator truck to expand his business and supply other restaurants, Judy Wicks lent him $30,000, which he has since paid back.
Every year, Wicks staged a Green Dog Day to talk about green business practices and launch new green initiatives, which included a compost project that supplied compost to inner city school gardens; a solar hot water system to heat dishwasher water, and a ban on bottled water.
Judy Wicks’ overall vision – a sustainable global economy based on a worldwide network of sustainable local economies - has now spread to many other communities. She co-founded BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, in 2001, which now includes 80 or more local networks and over 20,000 locally owned businesses.
One of the best examples of BALLE’s mission is Sustainable Connections in Bellingham, Washington, which now has 600 independent businesses in its membership. Recognizing the need for a new generation of farmers to provide locally grown food, that program has offered apprenticeships to 30 or more new organic farmers in the past three years.
Choosing a place and taking responsibility for it is the first step in building a local living economy, she asserts. Ten years ago, she sold her stocks and put her life savings into The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia community investment group that loans money to support things like affordable housing, local businesses, and community centers.
“I soon discovered that the wind turbines producing renewable energy for our region, including my own home and business, were financed by The Reinvestment Fund,” she recalls.
“From my local investment, I receive not only a modest financial return (which has recently outperformed the stock market), but also a ‘living return’ – the benefit of living in a more sustainable community.”
David Wann is an author, filmmaker and speaker on the topic of sustainable design and lifestyles. He is the author of The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011) and contributing editor to thestoryofmeaningfuluse.com.