Cooking Up a Revolution
Like many socially responsible entrepreneurs, Judy Wicks had long admired the business practices of ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's. She built her thriving White Dog Cafe on the same premise that doing right by the environment, the local community and one's human values made good business sense. So when Ben and Jerry themselves were unable to stop Unilever from buying their company out from under them in late 1999, Wicks was devastated.
"It was a real wake-up call," Wicks says of the $326 million buyout. "Here was this model of the socially responsible business movement being sold off to a giant corporation, concentrating yet more wealth and power in the hands of a few. And that's just what the socially responsible business movement has been trying to combat all along."
Ben & Jerry's wasn't the only progressive prey of the corporate takeover. In recent years, Odwalla has been bought by Coca-Cola and Cascadian Farm by General Mills, with Stonyfield Farm eventually going to Groupe Danone, the parent company of Dannon and other brands.
"Good business is not about money. It's about authentic, human relationships, with your customers, your employees, the farmers who supply you."
Wicks realized that it made more sense to rally the small progressive businesses like hers rather than focus on what's wrong with the big ones. She started organizing like-minded entrepreneurs in Philadelphia and beyond for a new mission: building an alternative to corporate globalization by cultivating and creating networks of "local, living economies" consisting of small businesses that serve the human and natural communities in their own back yards. By banding together, Wicks says, socially responsible companies can build a new global economy that better serves and supports all life, not just the narrow interests of corporate profits.
"I don't want to end up a serf on a corporate plantation," Wicks says. "Profit-driven corporations are gradually taking over our lives, controlling media, government, education, water and food supplies -- you name it. I feel that by organizing small businesses to provide an alternative where ownership is spread widely, I am helping to protect democratic freedom."
Wicks, who melds "food, fun, and activism" at her $5 million-a-year restaurant, already does plenty. She channels 10 percent of profits to good causes, engages customers in volunteer projects as varied as her menu, serves organic fare raised by local farmers, runs her restaurant solely on windpower, and pays all her workers a living wage -- for starters.
Voted one of the most powerful women in Philadelphia, Wicks also has chaired the Social Venture Network (SVN), a national organization of entrepreneurs, investors, and others working to create a just and sustainable world through business.
She's having a good time while she's at it. It's not profits that drive Wicks, it's people. "Good business is not about money. It's about authentic, human relationships, with your customers, your employees, the farmers who supply you," says Wicks. "A socially responsible business considers how its decisions will affect them, not just the bottom line. By staying small, I have tried to go deeper with all the relationships involved in my business -- to enjoy the human experience, which is more valuable than money."
Wicks isn't alone in her business philosophy. She recently helped launch the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, a group of local entrepreneurs committed to supporting environmental and progressive social causes and each other. Last fall, Wicks and Laury Hammel co-founded SVN's Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which links networks like the one in Philly with others around the country, from Maine to California. Hammel, a Boston-area health club owner and longtime champion of socially responsible business, says a groundswell is building.
"I never have to convince people we don't need anymore Wal- Marts," he says. "People realize there's a major imbalance, and we're trying to create an affirmative alternative."
Can a band of progressive Davids turn the tide against the corporate Goliaths?
Some observers think so. "Judy is proving that we don't have to assume that big box retail has to be the future," says Michael Kinsley, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute's Economic Renewal Program in Snowmass, Colorado. "Her work points to a better, more sustainable model, and shows just how it can work. And for that she should be given a Nobel Prize in economics."
For her part, Wicks adheres to a simple M.O.: "Business is beautiful when it's a vehicle for serving the common good." But to understand how she makes it real, you need to book a table at the White Dog.
The coffee and muffin shop Judy Wicks opened in a storefront below her apartment 20 years ago has blossomed into a beloved Philly institution that seats 200 in a warren of rooms that sprawls across three Victorian brownstones near the University of Pennsylvania campus. In that time, the White Dog has wowed patrons and critics with a hearty "New American" cuisine rooted in the fresh fare of local farms: garden vegetable pasta with local goat cheese, pasture-raised pork in a chipolte barbecue sauce. Condé Nast Traveler has named the White Dog among the top 50 American restaurants worth the trip.
But from the beginning, Wicks has worked to serve not just her patrons, but the local community that she believes is vital to a just economy. To that end, Wicks had dedicated herself to nurturing a local economy that would cater to the needs of people in her own back yard while addressing global concerns at the same time. By staying small and local, she's also protecting the environment (the transport of goods around the world in the global economy accounts for the lion's share of greenhouse gas emissions) and communities otherwise at the whim of the bean counters at some distant corporate headquarters.
Although she's been thinking local from the beginning by stocking the White Dog with produce, meat, and dairy from area farms, most in nearby Lancaster County, she started to search for ways to extend what was largely a private arrangement between the café and her local suppliers into the rest of Philadelphia. As it turned out, pigs paved the way.
At the time, Wicks had been reading John Robbins's "Diet for a New America," which graphically describes factory farming and industrial slaughterhouses. Realizing that pork served at the White Dog came from the very conditions Robbins decried, Wicks took the meat off the menu and charged her staff with finding humane alternatives.
Business partner and head chef Kevin von Klause turned to Glenn Brendel, a local vegetable grower, who connected him with Amish farmers. Communicating with them added yet another complication: They don't own phones, let alone fax machines. Still, by the spring of 2001, Amish farmer Alvin Newswanger began delivering free-range pork to the restaurant every week.
Von Klause had done the hard part, locating Newswanger and other area farmers and establishing a supply line from their farms to the White Dog. Here, thought Wicks, was the chance to extend it to other Philadelphia-area businesses, creating that local economy. To that end, Wicks founded the nonprofit Philadelphia Fair Food Project to find other local markets for Newswanger's pork, as well as for humanely and sustainably raised products of other nearby farmers. Working out of an office in Wicks's apartment, director Ann Karlen began making the rounds of Philly area chefs, explaining the smorgasbord of foodstuffs available locally. "I'm like an unpaid middleman," says Karlen. "I connect chefs with farmers, farmers with chefs, and leave it to them to work out the delivery arrangements."
So, far Karlen and her assistant have met with 40 area chefs, not including the many that Wicks and von Klause approached through their work with the Chefs' Collaborative, another national group they support. Karlen figures more than two dozen have begun buying more locally. Karlen's not sure just how much money that has brought to area farmers, though last year the White Dog alone paid out over a quarter million dollars to some 20 farmers.
But even when a restaurant buys smaller amounts, it makes a big difference. "Almost every one of these small family farms struggles," says Brendel, who supplies Philly restaurants, including the White Dog, with goods from his farm and others. "And for many, the extra markets they now have in Philadelphia have been the difference between surviving and not."
Of course, a local economy can't subsist on food alone, a realization that gave rise to the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia. This network coalesced after a series of small dinner parties Wicks and friends had hosted over the years for local progressive business leaders.
"The idea is that we connect these folks so they can do business with each other," says attorney Alan Barak, who co-chairs the network with Wicks and is director of the Penn Energy Project, which promotes sustainable economic development. "If one of these businesses needed recycled copy paper, for example, or some service, like financing, they'd look to get it from a fellow member before they'd head to the Yellow Pages."
The network's core group numbers about 50, with another 120 who are more loosely affiliated. To connect them, the network has held a number of educational forums that showcase member industries and services such as recycling, energy efficiency, and community capital. A larger forum is planned for the spring.
At a time when nearly every tennis shoe is stitched in China and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. accounts for about 7 percent of all national retail sales, Wicks's small, local model may seem impractical. For instance, there may be limitations particularly in the scale of what can be produced locally. But, says the Rocky Mountain Institute's Kinsley, "We are so far away from reaching those limitations that they are really more than academic as against the significant potential that is embedded in Judy's model."
Even Wicks admits you can't get everything you need from your own back yard. There's a need and, in Wicks's schema, a place for global trade -- though of a different order.
"If you can't buy something within your own region," she says, "you get it from small businesses in other parts of the country that are knitted into their local economies."
To that end, Wicks and her network members can turn to the like-minded businesses within any of the eighteen local economies that are part of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. And when products aren't available in this country, they can connect through fair trade importers in the BALLE database to producers in other countries who support their local community and environment. The coffee beans that Wicks gets from her Philly roaster and broker, for example, come from an indigenous cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico, whose members are part of the Zapatista pro-democracy movement. "So we form this network of small to small around the world," says Wicks.
At 55, Wicks is at a point where she's beginning to look ahead. The last thing she wants to do is retire.
"My children are grown. The restaurant is almost paid off, and pretty much runs itself. Everything I need is right here," she says. "I'm in a position to share more." To that end, the former college English major (and possibly the only entrepreneur ever to articulate a business philosophy in the form of a poem) is writing a new book.
Tentatively titled "Good Morning Beautiful Business," the book will tell Wicks's story, which, she says, is but an extended explication of her idea that beautiful businesses serve the common good. She hopes to have the book published next year in time for the café's 20th anniversary. A film about the White Dog, which will be shown sometime during the anniversary, is also in the works.
Wicks also is thinking about her legacy. She's had vague offers to buy the business but refuses to take the traditional exit strategy of the successful restaurateur: Sell out to the highest bidder and retire to some tropical paradise.
"I've worked hard to build the White Dog into a community-oriented institution. I want to make sure it stays that way after I die." In the fall, Wicks's daughter Grace, who just graduated from college, will start working alongside her mother. Wicks doesn't want Grace to feel obligated to go into the business, but obviously she'd be pleased to have someone who shares her philosophy eventually take the helm and bring in fresh ideas. If not, Wicks might also consider selling the business to her employees.
Employees, in fact, figure large in Wicks's long-term thinking. In addition to paying her employees a living wage, beginning with $8 an hour for dishwashers, she offers a 401K with employer matching, and she's developing a pension plan for long-term employees -- a rarity in an industry with such high turnover.
Of the restaurant's 115 full-time employees, 43 have been at the White Dog for more than three years; of these "Old Dogs" 10 have been there a decade or more. "These workers have made a commitment to the White Dog," says Wicks. "And I want to make sure they're taken care of when they're sixty-five."
It's hard to imagine this self-confessed workaholic ever slowing down herself. Wicks is so convinced of the real possibility of change, of bringing about a sustainable world, that her passion sustains her. She says she has never been tempted to throw in the spatula.
"My energy comes from believing we can change and then being part of the solution," she says. And as she sees it, there's every reason to hope that such a change is possible. For proof, she looks no farther than the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, which, appropriately enough, took place around the same time that Unilever's takeover of Ben & Jerry's was announced.
"The Seattle protest is one of the greatest events in contemporary history in terms of planet- saving being possible," she says. "It showed that young people get it. They were astute enough to figure out that corporate global trade agreements are destroying the planet. They gave me great hope. Now we just need to replace corporate globalization with a global economy comprised of local, living economies. If we do it fast enough, we really can save the world."
In the meantime, she finds both pleasure and fulfillment in her everyday work as she focuses on building networks rather than net worth. "I get the satisfaction of knowing that I'm helping to create an economic system that will respect and protect the world I love -- clear streams, fresh air, lush forests, healthy and happy animals, lively and diverse communities," Wicks says.
"Wealth to me is well-being; being happy and healthy, and understanding that my own health and happiness is connected to that of every other living thing."
Mark Harris is a frequent contributor to Hope Magazine.