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The White Dog's Tale

What's the recipe for success in the restaurant business? Ask Judy Wicks - She rewrote it. At the White Dog Cafe she creates community and livable-wage jobs, involves customers in field trips for social change, and takes home good money.
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By her mid-thirties, Judy Wicks was already a seasoned entrepreneur. She'd been general manager and co-proprietor of Philadelphia's Restaurant La Terrasse, helping increase its income fivefold in her decade there. She'd also cofounded and run two Philadelphia businesses simultaneously, the Free People's Store (now Urban Outfitters) and Synapse, Inc., a nonprofit publishing company.

One of the reasons for her success, she believed then, was that she kept her values separate from her money-making. Her strategy involved a sort of split personality. “Okay,” she told herself, “it's through the nonprofit that I'm going to do my good works, and through the for-profit that I'm going to earn a living.” Even in 1983, when she first opened the doors to the White Dog Cafe, Wicks still believed she needed to separate making a living from doing good.

The story of the White Dog Cafe is the story of Wicks' evolving understanding that “you can, in fact, use the market as a vehicle for serving humanity.” In the 18 years since its opening, the White Dog has become a Philadelphia institution, locally and nationally known and valued for Wicks' leadership in right relationship with employees, social and environmental activism, and just plain good cooking. Through her restaurant, Judy Wicks has finally found a way to merge her love of inventive cuisine, her social activism, and her practical business sense.

Haute cuisine for body, mind, and soul
A person could go the The White Dog Cafe just to eat. Many customers do — at least the first time. The Dog's eight dining rooms are laid out in the nooks and odd corners of an old Victorian row house, in an atmosphere that manages to be both homey and sophisticated. Wicks and her chef, Kevin von Klause, have created a menu to please the most discerning palate, and their work has garnered the Conde Nast Traveler's 1993 rating as one of the Top 50 American Restaurants. In 1998 the pair published the White Dog Cafe Cookbook: Multicultural Recipes and Tales of Adventure from Philadelphia's Revolutionary Restaurant.

But many of the diners who come just for the food end up staying for the activism. Wicks tells of a salesman who sold the restaurant its insurance, then attended a Table Talk on the School of the Americas and became a regular at the annual protests held at the School. Wicks jokes, “I use food to lure innocent customers into social activism.”

The Dog offers diners an array of learning opportunities in lecture or hands-on formats as well as field trips to other countries. There are Table Talks on a variety of topics: the American war on drugs, the Supreme Court's decision in the 2000 election, racism. And the White Dog often organizes rides to rallies and marches, like the demonstrations against Clinton's impeachment that Jesse Jackson called for, the Million Mom March, Stand for Children, and more. On an upcoming seven-day field trip to Amsterdam, customers will study Dutch drug policy and visit the Cafe Paradox. This cafe is one of the White Dog's seven sister restaurants around the world, part of a cooperative project called “Table for Six Billion, Please!” Wicks establishes sister relationships with restaurants in countries where the dialogue with the United States is poor, to open up new avenues of communication between peoples.

The birth of the White Dog
Wicks' White Dog venture began when she sensed the dissonance between her profession and her activism. Her energies drained by splitting her values into the commercial and nonprofit worlds, she sought a simpler solution, which first led her into managing someone else's restaurant. “I realized with the nonprofit and the for-profit that in order to really be effective, I needed to focus on one organization,” Wicks says. “So I eventually abandoned the publishing work and focused on the restaurant. But it wasn't all my restaurant, and when I started experimenting with bringing my values to work, like having a breakfast for Salvadoran refugees, I had to part ways with my partner there. This idea of compartmentalizing your life, and having certain values in one area and other values in another, has never worked for me.”

The first step, Wicks says, was simply to change her life so that she lived where she worked. “I think that society teaches us, ‘Separate work from home; don't mix them together. That'll be too stressful.' And I've always worked against that.” So the White Dog, located in a block of row houses near the University of Pennsylvania, became both her home and her business. “I'm kind of a holistic person,” she says. “I live where I work. I live ‘above the shop,' in the old-fashioned way of doing business.”

“The old-fashioned way” is clearly beneficial, not just to Wicks, but to her community and her family. “There's a pulse here, in the building: when the restaurant's open there's exhaust fans going on the roof and you know there's going to be 400 people passing through on the first floor,” she muses. “There is that sense of homeyness and personal involvement and proprietorship. And if I see a piece of trash or hear a window breaking, well, I'm always here.”

And then there's her family. Wicks' children were just two and four when she opened the White Dog. She doesn't know how she would have raised both them and the White Dog had she had other work and living arrangements. “The downside of mixing work and home is just nothing compared to the positive side — being able to raise my children here. Even if I wasn't in the house, I was always downstairs and they knew where to find me. It would literally have been impossible for me to have done it any other way.” Though the notion of living the suburban life looked appealing to her for a short time — yards for the children to play in and local quality public schools — Wicks says it was “only a fleeting idea, because I realized I'd never be home. I'd always be at the restaurant!”

Wicks points out other time-saving benefits of living above her restaurant. Not only does she not have to commute, she laughs, but she doesn't have to go food shopping or do dishes. “But it's more than that,” she says. “It's about energy and focus. And relationships. Being able to foster all these relationships.”

The relationships she speaks of are those with her staff. One of the White Dog's missions is “Service to Each Other,” an in-house goal of creating a tolerant and fair workplace. At first, Wicks says, she was resentful of one hard fact of restaurant life: almost all of her employees have consuming interests apart from their jobs at the White Dog. Many are artists, writers, actors, and dancers. But about 10 years ago, she consciously changed her resentment of her employees' less-than-consuming interest in her life's work into a celebration. Every January, all employees are invited to come to the Anniversary Howl, where staff members display the work they do in their “other lives.” Visual artists display their paintings and sculptures, and actors and musicians show videos or perform live.

Moving past standard business boundaries in this way has informed Wicks' creative development of the White Dog's missions. From encouraging her employees to re-create their job descriptions to fostering a sense of community among other Philadelphia restaurants, Wicks has shown that profitable businesses don't have to be stark-raving competitive.

Beyond business as usual
The path to setting this example was not always clear. Wicks has had to take leaps of faith that she admits have been frightening. And the stories of how she has managed the inherent risks of creating a socially responsible enterprise are what best define the White Dog's successful integration of social ideals with business sense.

It's no secret that federal minimum wage legislation has not kept pace with the cost of living in the United States. Today's minimum wage of $5.15 an hour is a far cry from what it takes to survive. Just a few years ago, Wicks herself was paying her unskilled kitchen staff only about $6 an hour. “I consider myself to be a socially responsible business person,” she says. “I went to a conference on social responsibility, and there was a workshop on the living wage, so I went to it to find out what it was all about. The idea behind the Living Wage Campaign is that an employer would voluntarily set their minimum wage at the living wage, which in Philadelphia is $8 an hour. So when I heard this, I thought, ‘Oh, that must be for other businesses, but not the restaurant business!'”

Wicks reasoned that $8 an hour for a population of unskilled, entry-level kitchen employees could well put her out of business, “so I closed my mind to it.” But again, the dissonance between perceived business imperatives and personal convictions was too uncomfortable for Wicks to withstand. As she relates it, “I was in the kitchen one day just looking at some of the staff. In this particular moment, these three young men happened to look up at me and it just dawned on me. I thought, ‘There's nothing I would rather do than make sure these guys have enough money to live on. What am I thinking, that I would actually want to have a business where people are not paid enough to live on?'”

So Wicks raised the wage — but not all at once, and not without conditions. She negotiated with the employees how they would earn their living wage, with simple goals such as coming to work, coming in on time, and taking initiative on the job. Today, all entry-level employees at the White Dog earn the living wage within three months of joining the company.

Humanely raised animal products
The White Dog Cafe had been purchasing free-range chickens and eggs for some time before Wicks discovered the appalling conditions in which most factory farm–raised pigs live before they are slaughtered. “When I first heard about it, it sickened me so much I couldn't even deal with it,” she says. As with the living wage campaign, Wicks at first felt that, as a restaurant owner, she could not afford to follow her conscience. “Again, I shut the door,” she admits. “I was afraid. I thought, ‘I can't risk everything by becoming a vegetarian restaurant. But I'm part of this system. What am I going to do?'”

Paralyzed by indecision, Wicks went on being “part of the system,” until one day she could take it no more. “I just came to the restaurant and I told our chef, Kevin, I want to take pork off the menu totally. The bacon, the ham, pork chops, everything, until we find a humane source for meat.” She knew the risky move of changing her menu was the only way to force herself to do the hard research into finding humanely raised meats.

Wicks' search has resulted in a two-pronged solution. Her restaurant purchases from local and national farms that sell humanely raised pork, beef, and lamb products. And now, through a grant, the White Dog is working to re-establish the distribution routes for humanely grown animal products from rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, into Philadelphia, thereby encouraging other restaurateurs to serve these products.

Wicks is aware that in the business-as-competition model, exploding your own market niche isn't supposed to be smart. On a recent visit to Center City Philadelphia, Wicks found herself confused by an early victory in her new effort to foster the widespread purchase of humanely raised meat. “I noticed that another restaurant downtown is using humanely raised pork chops,” she says. “It used to be that we were the only ones who did. At first I thought, ‘Oh, they're taking from our niche,' then I realized that that's what I'm trying to have happen!'”

So that's the tale of the Dog — a tale of Wicks' vision of “the market as a vehicle for serving humanity” emerging into reality, a vision that evolved even as she was performing the experiment.

“I guess one of the things I believe is that if you do the right thing, things will work out,” she says. “When I say that, sometimes I check myself, because I don't want to misguide young people into thinking that if they go into business doing ‘nice things' they're going to be successful, because it's more than that. You do have to be sensible in terms of the money part of it.”

Wicks' own recipe for success has mixed the right parts idealism, realism, activism, and practicality to become part of the emerging dialogue on business as a venture that cooperates with its entire milieu.

 


Maryann Gorman is a freelance writer and editor who resides in Narberth, Pennsylvania. She is editor of the new newsletterInspirit

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