20 Years, 20 Stories: Local Innovator Judy Wicks

Jul 12, 2017 7 years ago

Before she was Judy Wicks the entrepreneur, touring speaker, and author of books about sustainability and locally-based economies, she was Judy, a young woman fresh off a year of AmeriCorps’ VISTA, living in a remote village in Alaska with her childhood sweetheart-turned-husband Dick Hayne, trying to figure out what to do with her life. In 1970 Judy and Dick, originally from outside of Pittsburgh, realized they didn’t want to work for other people and decided to open a store.

“We were 23 years old,” Judy says. “We figured there was nothing to it—you just buy something at one price and sell it for a higher price.” Their idea was to open a sort of mini-department store that would cater to people under 30 and sell everything from jeans and t-shirts to houseplants, records, books, bedspreads, and vanity earrings. On a trip to Philadelphia, they were encouraged to open up shop near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where Dick’s friend Scott Belair was attending Wharton for business school.

Judy and Dick visited some storefronts and fell for one at 4307 Locust Street. Judy drove home to Pittsburgh to pack a station wagon with their belongings, which were “mostly Levis jeans, Bob Dylan records, and two dogs,” while Dick stayed behind to work out the lease. And with $3,000 to their names, Judy and Dick moved into the back of what would become the Free People’s Store, a name that reflected their “anti-war, anti-establishment values.” Early on, Judy and Dick furnished the store by foraging for discarded wooden crates from Chinatown and buying second-hand merchandise. They bought men’s plain white, long sleeve undershirts for $1.50, filling up trash cans with pink and blue dye from the local Acme, and reselling the newly colored shirts for $5. They scoured used clothing bins for leather jackets, dresses, and silk slips, buying them by weight and reselling at a markup. Scott invested and the store expanded, serving as one of the first examples of a lifestyle shop, predating the trend by decades.

Although the store was a success, Judy and Dick’s marriage did not last. On the day she moved out of the store, Judy got into her car and made it as far as half a block away before running a red light and crashing. Nobody was hurt, but she wrecked the car. A man who witnessed the accident offered to help Judy get her bags home. 

“I can’t go home,” Judy replied. “I just left my husband and I have to find a job.” 

“Well,” the man replied, “I work in a restaurant called La Terrasse. They have an opening for a waitress, so why don’t you come work there?”

So when people ask Judy how she got into the restaurant business, she loves to answer, “By accident.”

(If you’re concerned about what became of Dick, don’t worry—after a few years he used the Free People Store model to open Urban Outfitters, and spun the lifestyle idea into a multi-billion-dollar operation. Later, he used the name “Free People” for a line of bohemian apparel that has grown into its own immensely successful brand. Things turned out pretty well for Dick.)

At the time when she started work at La Terrasse, located at 3432 Sansom Street, it was one of the most popular restaurants in the neighborhood. “It was a neighborhood hangout,” Judy says, “a French café where the Gruyere cheese on the onion soup was so thick it had to be cut with a knife.”

Judy instantly fell for the 3400 block of Sansom, with its quaint brownstones. “Night and day there was activity on the sidewalks—residents coming and going to work or to class, and customers going in and out of the shops and cafes.” Judy soon rented an apartment on the block, and her neighbors included artists, young professionals, students, professors at the University of Pennsylvania, and local employees. 

In 1972 Judy learned that the entire block was earmarked for the development of a commercial mall by the University of Pennsylvania. Judy and other members of a group called the Sansom Committee mobilized to try and save both their block and the 3400 block of Walnut Street. They quoted urbanist Jane Jacobs, whose book The Death and Life of Great American Cities pushed for mixed-use buildings and walkable communities (and whose work is greatly admired and inspirational here at University City District), and argued that Penn could preserve the houses and create a feel similar to Washington DC’s Georgetown, with similar brownstones housing shops, restaurants, and people. 

In the end, a compromise was reached when a judge cut the block in half, giving Penn the Walnut Street portion for development, and granting the Sansom Street portion to the community members, who preserved the brownstones. It was through the Sansom Committee that Judy met her second husband Neil, an architect whose firm provided expertise in historic preservation. 

All the while, Judy was learning the restaurant business. 1974, amid dipping profits and a general sense of chaos, Judy was promoted to general manager at La Terrasse, and at 27 suddenly found herself managing a 120-table restaurant with over fifty employees. She enrolled in an evening class at Wharton and soon applied what she learned to the running of the restaurant. Under her leadership she helped get the restaurant back on track. Her management style, as she describes it, became a balance between “freedom and structure, individuality and conformity, and spontaneity and discipline.” She aimed to create an environment that “provided employees the maximum amount of freedom to be themselves within a clear framework of policies and job responsibilities.” 

After ten years in the restaurant business, Judy decided it was time to start her own venture, and in 1983 used the bottom floor of her house on Sansom Street to open a muffin and coffee shop she called the White Dog Café. She decorated with photos of people with their dogs and furniture from her own house, later growing the business into a restaurant focused on American cuisine. 

At the time, American restaurants were not very inspired. “There wasn’t American cuisine other than steak and potatoes, or hamburgers and French fries.” Judy wanted to serve food she had grown up on, like her mother’s shish kebabs or strawberry pie like her Nana used to make, all from fresh, in-season ingredients. 

Just as she pre-dated the lifestyle trend, so too did Judy pre-date the farm-to-table movement with her practices at White Dog. “We did it because we thought it tasted better,” Judy explains. “It was more nutritious, since food designed to have a longer shelf life loses its flavor and nutritional value. We wanted to know the farmers and the food system.” 

At the same time Judy was developing practices that would define a food movement, she drew inspiration from Alice Waters, the owner of the Berkeley, California-based Chez Pannisse who was gaining national attention for similar practices. Judy hired a chef who had worked with Alice Waters and was able to cook in a similar style, and White Dog soon gained a reputation for its fresh, seasonal food. 

Judy never stopped innovating over the course of the 25 plus years she ran White Dog Café. After developing relationships with produce farmers, she applied the same principles to the acquisition of farm-fresh meats. After learning about the conditions of factory farms, she stormed into her kitchen and instructed her chef to remove all pork-products from the menu until they found a farmer in Lancaster County who could offer whole pigs that had been humanely raised. She then took the same approach for the eggs, chicken, and dairy products.   

Judy thought this practice would give White Dog a competitive advantage and establish their market niche, but then she realized her scope was too narrow. “If I really did care about the farm animals, and about the small farmers who were being driven out of business by these big corporate farms, then rather than keep this as my proprietary information, that I would share my list of suppliers with my competitors.” Judy says this was a real turning point in her life. “I realized that no matter how good your practices are—buying renewable energy, buying from local farmers, paying a living wage, composting—there’s no such thing as one sustainable business, that we can only be part of a sustainable system, and that we have to work in cooperation to build that system. Once I figured that out, I turned my attention away not just from the White Dog, but how we could build a whole local food system, to build a region of local farms to supply all of the Philadelphia restaurants.”

Judy also applied her committment to locally-sourced goods and used it in her second business, the Black Cat, a small, funky shop featuring locally made and fair trade gifts that was in business next to the White Dog for over 20 years.  

Even though she sold White Dog in 2009, the principles Judy established continue at the original restaurant and the two others that have opened in Haverford and Wayne. “When I sold the business to the new owner we had a special contract that requires them to continue to buy from farmers, and that all their meat has to be grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range, and cannot come from an animal factory. The owner committed to starting other White Dogs as long as they were 50 miles of his house and they are still under the same agreement, that they have to buy from local farmers.”

Judy’s many successes and innovations have led to many accolades over the years, including an induction to the University City Science Center’s Innovators Walk of Fame in 2015 for her work in social impact. To tell the rest of Judy’s story—to fully outline the three non-profits she started, or to give her the credit she deserves for supporting the local business economy—would require many more words than we’re able to include in this profile. Luckily, you can learn much more about Judy, her life, and her businesses by reading her book Good Morning, Beautiful Business.

The White Dog Café is one of 30 restaurants participating in year’s University City Dining Days, running July 13th - 23rd. To see their menu, plus a full list of participating restaurants, visit www.ucdiningdays.com