White Dog Alumni: Judy Wicks and The White Dog Café spawned a generation that continues to grow local food systems in Philadelphia and beyond

story by Molly O’Neill | Standing in front of The White Dog Café are (l to r) Wendy Born Smith, James Barrett, Judy Wicks and Kevin von KlauseDuring its 26-year reign, the White Dog Café and its satellite organizations incubated a host of talented young chefs, leaders and entrepreneurs. Today, their work continues to build upon Judy Wicks’ legacy in the realm of local, sustainable enterprise.

Award-winning chef Aliza Green, first to helm the White Dog kitchen after its major renovation in 1986, pioneered the restaurant’s local food program. Although Green now focuses primarily on writing cookbooks, she also serves as Director of Culinary Development for Erdenheim’s Heathland Hospitality Group, sourcing local ingredients and developing recipes for such venues as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

Kevin von Klause, James Barrett and Wendy Smith Born all bonded during their time in the White Dog circle. Then-sous-chef von Klause brought Barrett in to audition with Green for the position of pastry chef. Smith Born started in 1983 as a research/writing assistant for Wicks’ project The Philadelphia Resource Guide, then settled in as White Dog Manager. In 1993, Barrett and Smith Born left to co-found Metropolitan Bakery.

Metropolitan’s 19th Street shop was the first business to provide a pickup location for Community Supported Agriculture programs Winter Harvest and Farm to City. Barrett and Smith Born also helped create the Free Library’s H.O.M.E. Page Café, which is staffed by formerly homeless teens and adults. Today, Metropolitan Bakery has outlets in Reading Terminal Market, University City and Chestnut Hill. This past February, Barrett and Smith Born opened Metropolitan Bakery’s first sit-down café, next door to the 19th Street location.

Barrett says that in the early White Dog days, “local food was not easy to attain, expensive and in short supply.” However, he says, “when Kevin Klause took over as executive chef, he forged relationships with the farmers and worked to make it cost-effective.” Smith Born, having grown up in New York City, was inspired by the revelation that metropolitan areas could receive fresh, local, organic products.

Klause, Barrett and Smith Born also co-own Old City’s FARMiCiA restaurant, which emphasizes local, seasonal ingredients. Smith Born credits Wicks for teaching her that “to succeed in small business you have to first believe that you can do it, you have to work with a few like-minded people and you have to be willing to take, and live with, enormous risks.” She says that, although there are many more people supporting and contributing to the local food system than there were 20 years ago, “the challenges are the same: supporting farmers, preserving farmland, as a vendor being able to source and purchase fresh food locally and finally, having a public that is enthusiastic about consuming the bounty!”

The list of White Dog alumni-turned-chef-owners goes on, including Bistro 7’s Michael O’Halloran, Dan Grimes of Chloe and Anne-Marie Lasher at Picnic. John Doyle supports urban and local farming with the unique, seasonal flavors of John & Kira’s Chocolate. And the front-of-house and administrative types are just as active; former SBN Executive Director Leanne Krueger-Braneky now runs the Fellowship and Alumni programs at BALLE. She first met Wicks at a White Dog Table Talk, and found that they “both wanted to create a local community of businesses.”

“As a BALLE Fellow,” she says, “I’ve really benefited from being part of a peer community of other leaders to grapple with similar issues in their own communities. And my fellowship cohort raised $2 million in new funding as fellows, so it had a real tangible impact on my own life, as well as SBN as an organization.”

And then there’s Ann Karlen, Founding Director of Fair Food. “My job really began with sort of pounding the pavement for chefs,” she says, “and that’s not really fun for anyone. Over the years, everybody’s connected the dots and understood that it’s about the whole food system, and we as an organization have worked to address that, still focused on the wholesale marketplace.”

Fair Food is now planning to work with more conventional markets, says Karlen, including a USDA-partnered study measuring local products coming through the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Fair Food is also considering reaching out to cities like Baltimore to share the solutions Philadelphia has found.  Judy Wicks’ mission, after all, isn’t just about local food — it’s about building a global web of self-reliant, sustainable economies, one business at a time.