Judy Wicks on Livin’ La Vida Local

story by Alex Mulcahy

A raucous standing ovation greets Judy Wicks as she takes the stage at the Academy of Natural Sciences to read from her memoir, Good Morning, Beautiful Business. Her closest friends sit in the first three rows, unaware that they are about to be drafted into service. But after delighting the audience with excerpts from the memoir that took her over a decade to finish, Wicks makes a request.

“I’d like to end tonight’s program with a song,” she announces. “So, would everybody in the first few rows join me on stage to sing ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth?’” A few moments later, the unlikely chorus sways on stage, accompanied by the Swing Set, a jazz duo that Wicks had hired to entertain patrons at La Terrasse decades ago. Once a ringleader, always a ringleader. Just shy of her 66th birthday, and three years after her retirement began, Wicks’ memoir is well timed. Her place in Philadelphia’s sustainability movement is secure, and her list of accomplishments is extensive: the founder of White Dog Café, Fair Food and the Sustainable Business Network — all institutions in Philadelphia — and on the national stage, the Business Alliance for a Local Living Economy (BALLE).

She has enjoyed success as a restaurateur, a food and small business activist and an organizer, but her idols are the great humanitarians Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Of course, differences do exist between Wicks and her heroes. This is a woman whose annual Fourth of July celebration involved dressing as a pregnant colonial woman with a sign taped to her back that said “George Washington slept here.”

Somehow Wicks managed to combine peace, business, activism and sustainability into a big party.

“To me, it was natural. It wasn’t a strategy where I said, ‘Well, I have to be fun now,’” she says. “It was just a part of who I am, ever since I was a kid... I was always thinking of things that were fun, that would draw people in, and I started to understand how to use that, how to gather people through fun at a young age.”

“Collective joy,” a term coined by Barbara Ehrenreich, is a major theme in Wicks’ work, and one that’s welcome in the often serious peace and sustainability movements.

As we assess the impact and legacy of Wicks, it’s easy for Philadelphians to take for granted what she created, and to underestimate the obstacles she overcame, both personal and societal, to become Philadelphia’s of Sustainability. Even as well-known as she is here, and as highly as she is respected, the question remains: Is it possible Wicks’ work is still underappreciated? 

The Building Blocks

Wicks was born in Ingomar, Pa., a small town in Western Pennsylvania that sounds as idyllic as any Norman Rockwell painting. Everyone in the town knew each other, and all of the stores and businesses were owned by Ingomar residents. This informed her adult vision of a self-reliant community of small scale businesses.

Born in 1947, the first of three children, Wicks recalls herself as a tomboy who loved playing baseball and building elaborate forts that impressed and confounded her parents. She theorizes that her position as the first born in the family helped her cause, as her father gave her the attention usually reserved for a son. Gender roles in Ingomar at that time were very clearly defined, but her mother gave her a glimpse of what was possible.

“The guys went to work, and the women were all housewives,” says Wicks. “But because my mother was a Girl Scout leader, she also led the day camp. My mom was the leader and when we put the flag up, she would be the person welcoming and leading a song and all that. I would see her organize chores for people, making lists, making sure everybody did their part. So it was like watching her run a business in a sense. She was my role model.”

That she had a strong mother is not surprising, but to learn that Wicks suffered from a great fear of public speaking is.

“My father had a lot of emotional problems. Although he was a successful — to a certain point — lawyer, [and] he was a general council for the redevelopment authority in Pittsburgh, he didn’t want to sit at the table and talk to the family. He didn’t want to have to play the role of father at the dinner table. He wanted to watch TV while we ate. And this was a huge disappointment for my mom, that my father insisted that we sit and eat our dinner in the TV room and eat off our trays while watching TV because he didn’t want us to be talking. I realized later, like when I went around to other kids’ houses, that they all sat at the table and had a discussion, that I missed out on that part of my development, learning to hear your own voice, how to interject your voice, the whole flow of conversation. I was scared stiff, when I went to school, to raise my hand. I was terrified of my own voice. So, that was why, more than other people, I had such a fear of public speaking. It took a lot to overcome that.”

Into Business

in 1969, Wicks married her high school sweetheart, who, like her, was opposed to the war in Vietnam. To keep her husband from being drafted, they joined the service organization VISTA and were assigned to a remote village in Alaska, where there was electricity just one hour a day.

Her husband, Dick Hayne, would experience an evolution just as profound as Wicks’, though in a decidedly different direction. Together they moved to Philadelphia and founded the Free People’s Store — a lifestyle store of vintage clothing, rock and roll albums and counterculture books — that provided a blueprint for a billion-dollar business: Urban Outfitters. But at the time, Wicks thought of business as something distasteful.

“I would say, ‘It’s not really a business! It’s nonprofit!’ I didn’t want to be associated with the profit motive.”

Though many of her ideas were critical to the success of the Free People’s Store, she felt marginalized within the business, and eventually in the marriage, which she left.

It’s easy to be overly simplistic in comparing Wicks and Hayne, but it’s difficult to resist. Hayne pursued large-scale business as usual, and the paradigm of endless growth. Wicks pursued business on a small scale, where growth was measured with multiple bottom lines. But first she had to become an accidental restaurateur.

Birth of a Restaurateur

It was a fender-bender on the day she left her husband and her business — a very funny story you’ll have to read in the book — that led Wicks to take a job as a waitress at La Terrasse, a French restaurant on Sansom Street in West Philadelphia. She thrived as a waitress, and before long, to her surprise, was offered the job as general manager.

Her view of business began to evolve, and she began to see the exchange of money not as something crass, but something that was essentially about relationships.

During the decade of Wicks’ stewardship, La Terrasse grew in annual sales from $200,000 to $2,000,000, fueled by her knack for throwing great parties — such as the New Year’s Day pajama party, which she brought with her to the White Dog — and her keen business sense. She continually analyzed the business and conceived of new ways to bring in revenue.

At the same time, West Philadelphia was being transformed by the University of Pennsylvania’s redevelopment. Beautiful buildings were being demolished to make way for chain restaurants. Wicks became actively involved in a “save the block campaign” for the 3400 blocks of Walnut and Sansom, where La Terrasse was located — so committed, in fact, that she once laid down in front of a bulldozer being used to damage buildings before a restraining order could be issued. “Tiananmen Square it was not,” she says modestly, but it was undeniably a brave impulse.

Though not all of the targeted area was spared, the Sansom Street block was, and part of the settlement allowed members of the neighborhood group to purchase houses, which Wicks did.

Throughout the decade Wicks spent at La Terrasse, she had believed that she was gaining equity in the business she had been so instrumental in building. The owner didn’t share that view, and when he planned to expand, he shut her out.

“I was totally devastated,” Wicks recalls. “I was crying hysterically. We had talked to a lawyer together to plan our partnership, so he told the lawyer that he owed me stock, so we had started the plan. I was going to call that same lawyer who witnessed this, and planned to sue for my shares. But when I called the lawyer, I just couldn’t speak. It had never happened to me before. I realized it was so against my nature to fight with him after we had gone through this long struggle for over 10 years, saving the business and the block. And if I had won, what would I have gotten? I would get a partner who didn’t really want me there.”

In an attempt to stir up business in the morning — the only time La Terrasse wasn’t busy — Wicks had opened a muffin and coffee shop in the front room of her home, a few doors down from La Terrasse. As a consolation prize, she was given the muffin shop. It was a modest beginning, but it would eventually evolve into a 200-seat restaurant, and an epicenter for the local food movement.

A Dog Has Its Day

Anyone who takes pleasure in the story of a small company bootstrapping its way to success will enjoy Good Morning, Beautiful Business. Wicks didn’t begin with a fully-formed plan; as the business grew, rooms of her home were overtaken one at a time by the business. Living room chairs were dragged into the restaurant and magically became homey places for customer seating.

Wicks found that she’d had enough of the intricacies and richness of French cuisine, and longed for something more like the simple, homegrown food she had eaten as a child in Ingomar. Nationally, there was an awakening to the importance of fresh, local food led by Alice Waters, and closer to home, chef Aliza Green at the Philadelphia restaurant Apropos was a leader in the farm to table movement.

Green had been developing an approach to food that focused on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. She brought that approach to the White Dog Café when Wicks recruited her in 1984, and she was a key figure in establishing the identity of the White Dog as an early farm-to-table restaurant and an East Coast counterpart to California’s Chez Panisse.

“It was really Aliza’s concept for the food,” says Wicks. “I knew I wanted local food for the restaurant before I met Aliza, but I hadn’t found the style of cooking that I wanted. I was looking at all these cookbooks from different regions of the country — Tex-Mex, Louisiana and Amish — trying to figure out what we wanted to be. But then I had dinner at Apropos, where she was the chef, and the food blew me away. She really made us a success. I’d also like to give credit to Kevin [von Klause], her sous-chef, who came with her from Apropos. Kevin was [at the White Dog] for 17 years, and really put in the time.”

With the right menu in place, Wicks became a champion for, and a friend to, the local farmers. A decade later, after reading harrowing accounts of how pigs were treated on industrial farms, she extended that same friendship to livestock. She immediately pulled all items from her menu that contained any pig products, and she tasked von Klause, now her chef with finding a source for ethically raised meat.

At the White Dog, Wicks continued to ask perhaps the most important question in sustainability, and she asked it about everything: Where did this come from? So, it was not only the food that was carefully vetted before it reached a White Dog diner; Wicks also installed a solar hot water heater and a composting system. The White Dog was also the first business in Pennsylvania to purchase renewable energy.

Integrating these systems and ideas into a working business like the White Dog showed what was possible, and proved that a values-based company could be successful.

“The thing that helped me, really, was being a businessperson,” says Wicks. “That was what made my voice effective, because I could make ends meet and I knew how to run a company and I had credibility. You couldn’t be too leftist if you were a business owner.”

Building Community

Wicks’ life and business seemed to revolve around a series of realizations and epiphanies. And in the wake of the epiphanies, she was filled with an evangelical need to share what she’d learned. One way for her to do so was through the Table Talks program at the White Dog, where she hosted discussions about important issues with local and national thinkers. Speakers included such notables as Amy Goodman, Michael Pollan, Jim Hightower and Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream.

Wicks’ definition of community didn’t stop at the edge of her own neighborhood. With groups of White Dog customers, she traveled to Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and the former Soviet Union, forging relationships with what she called “sister” restaurants in those countries.

“I remember I was really trying to figure this out: ‘How can I make sense of a restaurant getting involved with foreign policy?’” Wicks recalls. “Because to me, coming out of the 60s with the Vietnam War experience, I felt that our foreign policy was my greatest interest and my greatest concern. I think Nicaragua could have become another Vietnam if it weren’t for the large number of Americans that went there... So, I’m thinking, ‘How can I be effective?’ And that’s when I thought — well, there’s such a thing as sister cities; why can’t we have sister restaurants? So, that’s how I connected it. Because I needed to use my own vehicle that made sense for the restaurant.”

Wicks also forged connections with restaurants closer to home — even competitors. She describes a turning point in her understanding of her role as a business owner and community member: “I started Fair Food to share my proprietary information [about sourcing ethically raised meat] with my competitors, because I realized that there was no such thing as one sustainable business. We had to work collaboratively to build a sustainable system.”

Within months of founding Fair Food, Wicks also started the Sustainable Business Network (SBN). Her goal was to encourage local businesses to buy from each other, making Philadelphia a more diverse — and therefore more resilient — marketplace. Simultaneously, she started the parent to SBN, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which would become, and continues to be, a national force.

All You Need is Love

“I know she’s a Philadelphia institution,” says climate activist and environmentalist Bill McKibben, “but she’s a huge deal on the national scene as well: Her work with BALLE to help build out the network of local businesses across the country has been spectacularly successful... The best proof is that there are now Judy Wicks-type people in an awful lot of towns!”

McKibben isn’t alone in recognizing the impact of BALLE, which is now the fastest growing network of socially responsible businesses in North America, representing 30,000 entrepreneurs and 80 networks like SBN. “And none of it of it would have been possible without Judy’s early vision and pioneering leadership,” says former SBN Executive Director Leanne Krueger-Braneky, who recently became Director of Fellowship and Alumni at BALLE.

But when Wicks reflects upon the meaning of her work, she looks beyond the organizations she’s founded and returns to the philosophy of what motivated her: the need to change our destructive economy and to value relationships over money.

“Most of my business decisions that were important to me were made from the heart. Signing up for 100 percent renewable electricity. I didn’t do it because it was the right thing to do; I did that because I love nature. I love the world, I love life. And I want to do what I can to protect it. All of my decisions really came from a place of love. And that’s the only way we’re going to get out of the mess we’re in.”