An activist transforms from entrepreneur to citizen

"Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local-Economy Pioneer" by Judy Wicks (Chelsea Green)
"Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local-Economy Pioneer" by Judy Wicks (Chelsea Green) (From the book jacket)
Posted: March 10, 2013

The Unexpected Journey

of an Activist Entrepreneur

and Local-Economy Pioneer

By Judy Wicks

Chelsea Green. 320 pp. $27.95


Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans
If readers want a tell-all, or a warm and highly personal account of a well-known Philadelphian's life and times in Good Morning, Beautiful Business, they are going to be disappointed.

Judy Wicks saves most of her passion for topics such as fair-trade commodities, socially conscious philanthropy, and treatment of edible animals.

But near the end of the author's memoir of roughly four decades in the restaurant and rabble-rousing trade, there is a confessional moment both illuminating and refreshing, given how heavy the last half of the book is on business ethics and networking for good causes.

It comes, appropriately, near the end, after a fairly lengthy treatise on the pioneer locavore's urban, national, and even international, ventures creating fair-trade and sustainable business practices.

Showing a glimpse of engaging uncertainty, Wicks shares her vulnerability as she began to realize that the restaurant that had turned her into a public figure wasn't getting her full attention. Problems weren't getting solved - and, she writes, she wasn't having fun anymore.

Paradoxically, her devotion to fomenting cultural change on a national and even a global scale had, as she describes it, shortchanged the very business that had made her successful.

After more than 23 years, it was time to think about an exit from an enterprise that had made her famous and given her the social capital to create networks of local businesses. "Upstairs sitting alone at my desk, I was resolute in my decision to sell," she writes. But downstairs (she lived "above the shop"), she faltered. As she watched employees she knew well set tables and the morning sun shone on blue-and-white checked tablecloths, she imagined familiar customers filling the empty chairs. "Then I would start to cry and run upstairs before anyone saw me."

It was a moment, or a series of moments, that marked a stage along the way in her transformation from "activist entrepreneur" to "activist citizen."

With what now seems to be a genius sense for time and place, Wicks had opened the White Dog Cafe on the 34th block of Sansom Street at a time when the blocks around it teetered on the verge of transition, looking little like the humming blend of academe and commerce it has since become.

In partnership with neighbors and other local activists, Wicks had been instrumental in saving that block of residences from demolition (three of the brownstones were later occupied by the White Dog Cafe and Wicks' fair-trade and local goods shop, the Black Cat.)

Fresh from an adventurous 10-year apprenticeship at the now-closed La Terrasse, Wicks built the White Dog (first a muffin shop) into an artisanal powerhouse.

What a long way from the small western Pennsylvania town of Ingomar where Wicks grew up, where she exercised her budding business talents in creating homemade entertainment venues, from summer play productions to forts to a homemade golf course.

The author does an excellent job of describing her growth from a sometimes naïve "do-gooder" and quintessential child of the 1960s to a clever, innovative businesswoman. Blending purposefully wacky Bastille Day celebrations and New Year's Day pajama parties with community service events and international study trips to "sister" restaurants in places such as Mexico and Nicaragua, the author and her team created a business model in which it was possible for consumers to participate in the liberal "White Dog" philosophy as much or as little as they chose.

Readers will be able to tell that Wicks really knows how to throw a party.

But there are also hints of a formidable personality whose tenacity meant that she was not easily crossed. The husband she says she decided to marry as a fifth-grader in Ingomar, Dick Hayne, turns out not to be the egalitarian business partner she envisioned: "The leadership qualities that attracted me to him as a young girl picking the best boy to marry had now become oppressive." (After Wicks and Hayne divorced, he went on to develop the Philadelphia-based business they had begun, the Free People's Store, into the multimillion-dollar Urban Outfitters.)

After the White Dog was established, Wicks turned her attention to starting a family: "I was thirty-two years old. It was time to get on with it." With his interest in solar power and energy efficiency an added bonus, "handsome, brown-eyed architect" Neil Schlosser had caught her eye.

She married him, and though she and Schlosser later divorced, the book is dedicated to both of her children and to his memory.

It is only after years in the restaurant business - competing to make it in a "man's world," as Wicks puts it - that she became comfortable fully owning her feminine side. In that sense, as in others, she appears to be a classic child of her era.

When she did sell the White Dog in 2009, Wicks would insist that restaurateur Marty Grims sign a "Social Contract" preserving its independent ownership, locally sourced cuisine, and environmentally sensitive business practices.

Wicks was just enough ahead of her time to have an impact that spread well beyond Philadelphia. "Local economies are overcoming compartmentalization and reconnecting work life with community and family life, and uniting our work with our biggest values," she writes, a point that might also sum up her own life's work.

How frivolous to want more details about children, spouses, friends, hobbies and flaws.

In this authentic witness to doing well while doing good, Wicks shares what she chooses - perhaps in the hope that readers will be inspired to go out and reenvision their own communities.

"Most every place," she concludes, "can be special when we make it so."


Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is an Episcopal priest and a freelance writer. Contact her at bellettreliz@hotmail.com.

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