Food, Fun & Social Activism
In 1983, Judy Wicks founded Philadelphia’s iconic White Dog Café and became a pioneer in the local food movement and a model for sustainable business practices.
White Dog Café, begun as a simple coffee and muffin shop on the first floor of Judy’s home, was founded on the three pillars of “food, fun and social activism.” In reflecting on the café’s origins, Judy says she “created a place that people came to for more than the food. They came for a sense of belonging to a community of shared values. To me, that’s as important as the high-quality nutritious food we served.” People sometimes tease Judy that she used “good food to lure innocent customers into social activism.”
Judy doesn’t seem to think that’s anything to be ashamed of (and neither do we!)
Some time after White Dog Café was firmly established and thriving, Judy took the courageous step of sharing her list of local farmer suppliers with other restaurants in Philadelphia. Anyone who knows anything about business will tell you this was a crazy, and potentially self-destructive decision. Judy knew this, and she did it anyway. She’d realized that if she truly cared about the animals and small farmers, the soil, our environment, and consumers who were unknowingly ingesting antibiotics and pesticides, “rather than keeping my supply list to myself, I would turn it over to my competitors, I would get my competitors to do the same thing I was doing.” With that simple act, Judy turned the status quo on its ear.
Judy’s incredible leadership doesn’t stop at White Dog either. She is the founder of Fair Food Philly, and the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, as well as the nation-wide Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Her memoir, Good Morning, Beautiful Business won a national gold medal for business leadership, and Judy is no stranger to awards either. The short list of her impressive accolades includes the James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year Award, the International Association of Culinary Professionals Humanitarian Award and the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs Lifetime Achievement Award.
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Judy Wicks, author, activist, and entrepreneur, founder of Philadelphia’s iconic White Dog Café, as well as pioneer in the Local Food Movement, and recipient of many local and national awards. Welcome, Judy!
JUDY WICKS: Thank you, Anne!
AOC: So great to have you here, truly. You’ve changed the way people think about food in all kinds of places but certainly in Philadelphia. Tell us about the White Dog Café, and how did you start?
JW: Well, I started the White Dog in 1983 originally just as a coffee and muffin shop on the first floor of my house, and I gradually grew it into a full service restaurant. I had just previously been managing and was a part owner of a French restaurant that was just up the street from where I lived. And it was before the new American food, the California-style food craze began with, really, the leadership of Alice Waters—so I had not really, there was no food movement, at least that I was aware of.
AOC: This is in the 1980s remember, you all.
JW: Yeah, early ’80s—’83. So I just wanted to have a cozy café where my friends and neighbors would gather to discuss the issues of the day, and I wanted to have food like my mother cooked. And my mother was an avid gardener, as was my father. They had a huge vegetable garden, and then she would also go to the farmer’s markets, and she and my grandmother would stew tomatoes and make preserves and make all kinds of fruit pies to freeze for the winter. And so I grew up in a small town right next to the farms and appreciated that kind of food and cooking.
And after having been in a French restaurant for over 10 years, I was kind of sick of those heavy French sauces, béarnaise, and hollandaise and all that, and the fancy names. And I just wanted simple American food. And wouldn’t you know, I kind of caught a wave.
AOC: You sure did, I mean. So White Dog became a leader in the local food movement. You purchased things sustainably grown—produce from local family farmers; humanly and naturally raised meat, poultry, eggs; sustainably harvested fish; fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate. Now that just sounds like, yeah, a lot of restaurants do that. But in the 1980s, in 1983, this was not a thing. How did it become a thing for you?
JW: Well, you know, gradually, because I was experimenting and I started very much undercapitalized—I mean, our first turnout(?) kitchen was a charcoal grill in the backyard with a few picnic tables around it. And so I just gradually built it and I learned along the way. I mean, when I started, I had never heard of fair trade or sustainability or any of these things. So I just taught myself.
And of course, as the restaurant grew to become more substantial—actually getting a real kitchen, for instance, other than the charcoal grill—I was able to attract a really great chef. She was cooking at one of the premiere restaurants in downtown Philadelphia and she had begun to buy from farmers. And her food was very much like Alice Waters’—I didn’t know who Alice Waters was at the time, but later I understood that she actually studied under Alice—but it was just the food I was looking for, for my restaurant. And I heard that she was pregnant, so I approached her and I said, “Listen, if you come to work for me, I’ll give you a room next to the kitchen for your baby so you can have a nanny.” So she went for it, and she came [from] this high-profile restaurant to an unknown place in a West Philadelphia town—Philadelphia’s “left bank,” as they call it, in the University section—and it took off.
AOC: So there’s something in all that you’re saying, and you’re talking even about growing up and these foods and sitting around the kitchen, or wanting to create a cozy, comfy space, or the picnic tables in the backyard. You know, all this imagery is of people connecting and the food simple, well done, locally produced, high-quality food. But you created an atmosphere that people were wanting for their food. What is it about us that so much of our culture is connected to what we eat?
JW: For sure. I think it’s about authenticity, too—you know, not to be duped by the fancy names and the imports from, like, Dover sole or whatever fancy imports; to have a connection. I think there is a longing for connection. And you mentioned people earlier, and certainly I think that’s at the heart of all I’ve done is I’m a community builder. I love to gather people. In fact, people used to say that I used good food to lure innocent customers into social activism, because that was another hallmark of the White Dog, was what I began to envision as just people sitting around the table talking about issues, grew into actually programming where we would have authors come and speak about everything from foreign policy to the environment to the war on drugs or whatever. And we became a real force for change, and it was food, fun, and social activism.
So as much as I love food—now, I never was a chef. That’s something that always surprises people. So the food was not my artistry but the environment was. And I really created a place that people came to for more than the food. They came for a sense of belonging to a community of shared values. To me, that was just as important as the high-quality nutritious food that we served. And of course, we also talked about the food. And we had the “Dance of the Ripe Tomatoes” and the “Farmers’ Sunday Supper” where our farmers would come in and talk with our customers, and we did tours of the farms. And so food was definitely a highlight, but it was also other issues in our society that we addressed.
AOC: So over the years, White Dog grew this national reputation for community engagement, for environmental stewardship, for responsible business practices, and over time you actually ended up getting a lot of awards—the big ones, right? The James Beard Award, and lots of people have come and said, “Yep, this work that you’ve done has made a big difference in the world of food.” And now, you haven’t left food behind but you’re on to other things. And so I want you to tell us about what your latest passion—what are you excited about now?
JW: Well, I’d say I’m focusing on climate change and therefore renewable energy. So I’d like to see the whole economy, and as a businessperson, to look at not just having a sustainable food system but a sustainable energy system for our community, and a publically owned water system. And “food, water, clothing” is another thing. More and more you see now shops that sell locally made clothes. I think that’s another area that’s going to grow, especially as they legalize hemp, the fiber crop of the north, that that will become a thing too. “From dirt to shirt,” as my friend in North Carolina says. He uses locally grown cotton for T-shirts that he prints. And so I think that will also, like food, become popular, that you’re wearing clothes that the fiber crops were grown in your region and processed there and designed there and so on.
And I think that with climate change that we need to give up reliance on long distance shipping for our basic needs. I mean, number one, food: we need to have food security at home. And number two, or maybe even equal, is energy—that we have to have renewable sources of energy at home, from solar on our own roofs to big industrial solar banks and wind farms and whatnot, so that our regions become self-reliant in renewable energy. So I think this is something that’s, climate change is putting the winds in the sail of this movement, because we not only have to reduce the carbons of long-distance shipping but also prepare our communities for what’s coming. And there’s a lot of a struggle ahead of us. We’re all going to suffer from climate change, and the more we can be self-reliant on what we need to survive, the better for the future generations.
AOC: So you have done a lot of this work in food and a lot of work on climate change, and part of that is looking at local economies, promoting people, thinking about how to have what they need in their local areas. You have even taken all this experience that you’ve had and put it into a book. Tell us about Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer. What’s the process of the book and what is the book the compilation of here?
JW: Well, it’s a memoir, so—and people tell me it’s a page-turner.
AOC: Nice, that’s great!
JW: It’s a fun read, it’s easy to read, and it just traces my awakening to the need to build sustainable, local, economies, especially around food. So it starts off in growing up in a small town where there was a butcher, a baker—maybe there wasn’t a candlestick maker, but there was the butcher and a baker—and surrounding farms and so on, and how that changed with the malls coming and whatnot in the ’60s. And then an early experience I had was living in an Eskimo village. Right after college I was in VISTA and was sent to an Eskimo village, very remote. And here I was, a normal all-American girl with the usual American habits and whatnot, and all of a sudden you’re plunked down into an Eskimo village that’s totally remote with no phones, no TV, no cars, and it goes down to minus 35 degrees. That’s very cold!
I wrote a whole chapter on it, but the main takeaway—and I didn’t even realize it at the time—was that here was a community, they were really the happiest people I had ever known, yet they lived such a harsh and difficult life. And it was because their happiness was not dependent on money or material possessions; their happiness was dependent on community. And so they felt secure and happy because of the strong sense of community they had. It was an all-for-one culture. If you admire something that Eskimos have, they give it to you. So you have to watch out when you [unclear]. It was so different for me, because I’d come from a culture where we measure success by how much we have—how big our houses are, how big our cars, how big our wardrobe or whatever. Here was a culture that was just the opposite. Hoarding too much was seen as an aberration, that someone must be crazy or something—that we share with each other, cooperate.
So seeing this in real life kind of stuck with me. And later in my own life I think it was very influential to me in probably what was the most important decision I ever made that changed my life. And that was, at the White Dog, as you mentioned earlier, we were a pioneer in buying from local farmers, and so we really prided ourselves in this, and I was particularly upset by the factory farming of animals, in particular the pigs—how these mother pigs are kept in tiny stalls where they can’t take a step forward or backward, and artificially inseminated, and can’t turn around, never feel sunshine or a breeze or the companionship of other pigs. So anyway, I was horrified when I heard about this, and I switched to all pastured pork, and we would buy two whole pigs a week. And we got to the point where all of our animal products came from local farms: grass-fed beef and free-range chicken and so on. This was our competitive advantage; we had our network of maybe 30 farmers that supplied us.
But then I had a realization one day that if I really did care about the farm animals, and I really cared about the small farmers that were being driven out by the factory farms, and if I cared about the soil and the environment that was being polluted by factory farms, and if I cared about the consumers that were eating this meat, unknowingly, that was full of antibiotics and hormones and whatnot, then rather than keeping my supply list to myself, I would turn it over to my competitors. I would get my competitors to do the same thing I was doing. And that’s, I think, when my experience in the Eskimo village and seeing a culture that was based on cooperation and sharing came into play in my real life, because it was a counter to normal business in the United States. I mean, you keep your sources secret—that’s a big thing. And I must say I was at first afraid. When I thought of the idea of giving my competitors my list of farmers, I thought, “Oh my gosh, will I go out of business? Is this total foolishness? How will we stand out if everybody’s doing the same thing?” So it was really my love of animals that was really my driver, that my love of the pigs that overcame my fear of not having enough business for myself. And I just thought it was the right thing to do.
So anyway, I started a nonprofit that was funded by my own profits in the beginning, called Fair Food Philly. The first assignment of the first executive director was to make a little brochure out of all the farmers that supplied the White Dog, with what each farmer supplied and their phone number and so on, and go around to the chefs in town and tell about how important it was to buy local and here’s how you do it. Then we would have gatherings of the farmers and the chefs, chef farm gatherings, and tours where she would organize a bus of chefs and take them out to the farms, and so on. So we really went to work on building our local food system based on the restaurants and connecting the restaurants with the chefs.
So she grew that list as she kept discovering more farms, and then as more chefs got into it they would discover farms. But we developed a cooperative feel among the restaurants. Sure, there’s still competition just as in nature. Nature is fundamentally a cooperative system. And then within that system there’s friendly competition among the chefs to see what recipes can make the best use of these fresh local ingredients. It’s really based on natural principles, how nature works.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Judy Wicks, who is a fascinating storyteller and you should read her stories in her new book, Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer. What was the reaction when you started talking to other restaurants and said, “We believe in this so much that we want you to resource in these ways”? I mean, I could understand your hesitation and your concern, but what was their reaction?
JW: Well, I purposely did not have the White Dog lead this. That’s why I started Fair Foods, so it was not the White Dog Café is coming knocking on your door and preaching our principles at all. We stayed out of it. We didn’t even say, “This is the White Dog’s list of farmers.” People grew to understand that and to appreciate that. I purposely did not want to be put in a position where I was lecturing my contemporaries, my colleagues about anything. So as far as I know, we got a good response and people were appreciative; people came to the chef farm events and the tours and whatnot. And of course, as this grew, it was also growing in other places. As we know, the local food movement was springing up around the country, but for foodies, they began to understand that buying local was a hallmark of a good restaurant.
So it certainly wasn’t that way in 2000 when we started Fair Food, but it soon became a national phenomenon, as we all know, to buy local. Eventually there was a time when we could actually charge for our services. I mean, the organization is 17 years old now, and that little list of our farmers grew into a local food guide for consumers: here are all the restaurants that buy from local farmers, here are all the grocery stores that do, here are the CSAs, here are the farmers’ markets, here’s all the ways that you can connect with our local farmers. And that guide is still being published today. And also Ann Karlen, the director of Fair Food, started a farm stand, a Fair Food Farmstand, at the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, and we were the first farm stand that was open year-round, seven days a week. So that was another way that we reached the consumer. So it wasn’t just you have to go to a restaurant to buy local—you can go to a year-round farm stand and buy local food and cook it yourself.
Especially when it comes to the meat—that was the other thing. That’s why we started the Farmstand, because we couldn’t get the traditional butchers to buy the local, humanely raised meat because it was more expensive. So we started our own store to do that, to be an outlet for the meat. So again, we were enlightening customers to demand humanely raised, local meat. But they can’t just come to a restaurant to get it—they need to be able to buy it at a store to cook at home. So that’s where the Fair Foods Farmstand came in, in the beginning.
AOC: Talk about, if you would, why do locally produced meats cost more? That’s something we hear a lot, right, in this industry. Why is it that food that’s produced locally, why does that cost more?
JW: Well, first there’s the land, that you need more land for pastured animals, raising—you know, you need fields. With factory farms—well, we’ll just take cows—they’re raised in stockyards or finished in stockyards, I don’t know exactly that whole progression. But they’re fed grains that are subsidized with our tax dollars through the Farm Bill, which is so totally unfair. And the grains are not the natural food of cows, and so they always have either stomachaches and give off a lot of methane gas and so on, and then they develop that fatty marbled meat. And of course the meat industry, which is very powerful, sends out propaganda that this is what you look for in good meat, is the marbling. Of course, that’s not really true in terms of good health.
AOC: For the cow or the person, right?
JW: Exactly, for the cow or the person. So, anyway, it costs more money because you have to have enough land to have the grass to nourish the cows, and you’re not reliant on tax-subsidized grains that the cheap meat comes from.
AOC: So the soy and the corn, the conventional raising of livestock is so dependent on that corn and that soy. And those two products particularly, if you just looked at just those two crops, they’re so subsidized by the government that people have gotten used to cheap food.
AOC: And yet that’s not the food that’s going to serve almost anybody.
JW: No, it’s a whole charade. It’s cruel to the animals—to me, that’s the number one thing because it’s just so immoral. But it’s also unhealthy for the consumers and unhealthy for the environment, for the land. These factory farms are great polluters of the air and the water and the soil and so on. It takes more labor—I mean, when you put all these pigs in crates, you might have 10,000 pigs in a barn, and how many people are there looking after them? Can you imagine how many people it would take to herd and care for and keep your eye on 10,000 pigs? I mean, you just wouldn’t have a farm with 10,000 pigs that were just running around, probably. Maybe there are some that big, but… So labor, there’s a lot more labor in caring for animals in the correct way. And of course the battery cages of chickens, it’s the same thing. You just stuff them all in, and the whole…
To me this is indicative of the imbalance of masculine and feminine energies in our economy—that that is what’s wrong in the big picture of things. And I’m not talking about men and women; I’m talking about the feminine and the masculine energies in each of us. And I had a farmer once that said that good farming was the appropriate balance between the masculine and the feminine, which he characterized as the masculine being efficiency and the feminine being nurturing. We’re out of balance. It’s all about masculine energy, it’s all about efficiency. Like how little space can we give that laying hen? How little food and water, how little light and air, so that we can get the cheapest egg possible? There’s nofeminine energy whatsoever, no nurturing, nothing. This is the problem, and it’s out of balance, and we’re not getting the quality of food that we should as a society. And the hell on earth that the animals go through just makes me angry to think about it.
AOC: You’ve been in this now for many years, and you’ve been able to see food change. And these things that are wrong in the system and the ways that things are evolving, and the ways that people are paying better attention, and they’re more willing to do the work that it takes to provide that balance of care and attention and efficiency so that we can have healthy foods at our table. What would you say to the young people now, in this moment, when we have huge issues still before us? What’s it going to look like in another 30 years?
JW: Well, you know, I think that the things are definitely getting better because they’ve gotten so bad. And I think we need young people to be dedicated to the new economy that’s healthy, fair, and happy, like the Eskimos.
I think, I guess for me, I always followed my heart. When I think about the decisions I made that were really important and unusual, it was not simply because I figured something out in my head. In fact, there were times when I had figured out something in my head, for instance, using renewable energy. I knew it was the thing to do in my head, but I wasn’t motivated. It was my heart. But it wasn’t until I was hiking in the woods that I really care about, up in the Pocono Mountains, and saw the results of a drought on the woods—how the creek was dried up and the leaves were flying off the trees in August, and so on—that I felt in my heart climate change. This was back in 2001, and that’s what motivated me. The White Dog then became the first business in the state of Pennsylvania to buy 100 percent renewable electricity. Even though it cost a little more, it was what I wanted to do.
So I think business, that we’re often to close our hearts, that it’s un-businesslike to make decisions from the heart, that a good businessman is a tough person, and you make decisions based on the money, on the profits, and so on. And this is what you’re supposed to do, and this is certainly what I thought when I became a manager back in the ’70s and went out and actually bought little suits with ties and whatnot to try and act like a businessperson. That was short-lived! But anyway, so I think that the most important thing we can do as human beings, whether it’s at home or in business, is to make decisions from our heart. You can apply that to the whole economy, you can apply that to your life. So that’s what I would encourage young people to do, to have that balance.
AOC: Judy, if our listeners wanted to learn more about your work, where would they go?
JW: Well, I do have a website, JudyWicks.com, and I sell my book on my website. I encourage people to go to locally owned bookstores or, to order online, to go to BetterBooks.com, another way to get my book. Or you can just go to my website, JudyWicks.com, and order it from me and then I can autograph it for people.
AOC: Well, Judy, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.
JW: You’re welcome, Anne. It was fun.
AOC: And thank you, listeners, for joining us today as well. We’ll see you next week.
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