by Len Lear
Michael Shuman, author of a book called “Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity,” has written, “If ever there was a Nobel Prize for planet-saving, Judy Wicks deserves to be the first recipient.”
Wicks, a Philadelphia restaurateur, author, visionary and humanitarian, visited her friend Al Paris’ restaurant, Heirloom, in Chestnut Hill last Wednesday night to chat with diners and sign copies of her recently published book, “Good Morning, Beautiful Business.” The book focuses on Wicks’ love of nature, animals and community and her work in “building local living economies.”
Wicks, 66, may not be a household name to most Philadelphians, but she is regarded with near-reverence by forward-thinking farmers, restaurateurs and food entrepreneurs all over the country. Every time you hear the phrases “eat fresh,” “eat local,” “sustainability,” “buy from local farmers,” “treat farm animals humanely” and the other mantras of the progressive food movement, you are experiencing the heritage of Judy Wicks, who pioneered this crusade way back when many Americans thought McDonald’s represented healthy dining.
When questioned last week at Heirloom about the title of her book, Wicks explained, “I’m trying to create an economic system that will respect and protect the earth, one which would replace corporate globalization with a global network of local living economies. Business is beautiful when it’s a vehicle for serving the common good.”
Interestingly, Judy could have easily lived the life of a Kardashian or Donald Trump if the accumulation of wealth and fame had been her motivating impulse. That’s because in 1970 she and her then-husband Richard Hayne co-founded Urban Outfitters, the chain of retail clothing stores that have made Hayne one of the nation’s richest people with a net worth of $1.8 billion, according to the Forbes magazine annual “Richest 400 Americans” listing.
The first Urban Outfitters store was located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Today, the company operates over 200 stores under three brands: Urban Outfitters, Free People and Anthropologie. However, Wicks divorced Hayne in 1971, voluntarily giving up a potential life of unbridled luxury and starting over again at rock bottom.
In fact, Wicks entered the restaurant business literally by accident. On page 51 of her book she reveals that when she left her husband, she packed her bags and stressfully drove away when after just one block, she ran a red light and collided with another car. A passerby offered to give her a ride when she exclaimed, “I have to find a job fast because I need money to repair the car.”
“Maybe I can help,” said the passerby. “I work in a restaurant called La Terrasse on the 3400 block of Sansom Street near the university (Penn), and they have an opening for a waitress.” Wicks rushed over to the restaurant and got the waitress job so she could fix her car. And as the cliche goes, the rest is history. Now, 42 years later, she is a virtual legend among foodies all over the country and beyond.
After working as a waitress and learning the basics of the food business, Judy started the White Dog Cafe as a simple muffin shop on the first floor of her house in 1983 at 3420 Sansom St. (where it still exists) and grew it into a shining example of corporate responsibility with over 100 employees including the adjacent retail store, the Black Cat. Best known for buying organic produce and pastured meat and poultry from local family farmers (to whom she would occasionally lend money to help expand their operations), the White Dog Cafe, which Wicks sold to entrepreneur Marty Grims three years ago, also acted as a center for dialogue on progressive issues with frequent speakers, storytelling, film series and local and international tours.
The company contributed 20% of its profits to the White Dog Cafe Foundation with programs aimed at growing a “local living economy” in the Philadelphia region. The café also supported alternative energy by investing in wind-generated power to replace the electricity it used. The recipient of many local and national awards, Judy is now a frequent guest on lecture platforms, where she often says she learned from Gandhi that “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good. Non-cooperation began for me by refusing to be part of the factory farm system. This motivated me to create an alternative system. What came first though was the moral obligation to non-cooperate with a system I saw as evil. We need to make decisions with our heads and hearts. Keep on loving!” Judy said last week about one local farmer, “When she kisses the goat’s ears, it makes the cheese taste better!”
Mark Dornstreich, owner of Branch Creek Farm in northern Bucks County, said, “For us organic farmers, our personal relationship and friendship with Judy, her belief in and support of what we are doing has made all the difference.”
In 2004, Inc. magazine named Wicks one of America’s 25 most fascinating entrepreneurs “because she’s put in place more progressive business practices per square foot than any other entrepreneur.” In addition to the White Dog Café, she is also co-founder and chair of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia (SBA).
In honor of Wicks’ visit to Heirloom, Al Paris created a four-course dinner that blew everyone away, prompting oohs and aahs from us and all nearby diners. And our server, Ivette Casiano, who aspires to be a nurse, could win the Nobel Prize for waitressing. She is so delightful, it would be worth having dinner with her as your server even if the food wasn’t so great! In addition, Al Paris will soon be opening a French bistro where Melting Pot was adjacent to the Chestnut Hill Hotel and a gourmet grocery where Jonathan Best used to be.
For more information about “Good Morning, Beautiful Business” (Chelsea Green Publishing, $25 hardback, $16 soft cover), visit www.judywicks.com and click on”Book.” Contact Heirloom, 8705 Germantown Ave., at 215-242-2700 or www.heirloomdining.com