Pioneering Judy Wicks awaits her memoir's release

Judy Wicks in her kitchen. She hopes her memoir "empowers people to make a change in our economy."
Judy Wicks in her kitchen. She hopes her memoir "empowers people to make a change in our economy." (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2013

At 65, Judy Wicks has reached a sometimes stamina-challenged age - yet another reason the pioneering Philadelphia entrepreneur should relish her new career as an author.

Granted, it will soon involve an exhaustive run of signings of her memoir, Good Morning, Beautiful Business, due in stores April 3. But at least Wicks won't have to sprint through the streets chasing thieves.

As a West Philadelphia shop owner in the 1970s, she did that a few times - including catching up with a knife-wielding teen who had stuffed a stack of shirts under the one he was wearing before bolting from Free People's Store. Another time, it was to nab a brazen woman who had tried on purple velvet jeans - and kept them on as she fled without paying.

Wicks owned the store with first husband Dick Hayne, who, after she left the marriage, built Free People's into the retail power Urban Outfitters Inc.

Ironically, Wicks was on the move again, this time in a car, when she had the accident that led to the chance meeting with a passerby who told her about a waitressing job. That led to Wicks' four-decades-long career in the restaurant business and her eventual international notoriety for a menu heavy on social activism.

In a recent interview, Wicks described her book's message: "The heart of it all, to me, is really about transforming our hearts as entrepreneurs and consumers. We too often make economic decisions based on money, and not the way our transaction hurts others."

At the White Dog Cafe, which Wicks operated from the first floor of her family's rowhouse on Sansom Street at the edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus, she introduced to the city dining scene locally sourced food and humanely raised meat, poultry, and eggs.

And in the process, the mother of two helped ignite a national reform movement - one advocating for locally sustainable economies, in which business success is defined not just by profit but social impact.

"Precedent-setting" is how Ben Cohen, cofounder of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream empire, characterizes her work. He introduced Wicks to the idea of a multiple bottom line.

"From the way she sourced her food, to the way she treated and compensated her employees, to the way she used the restaurant as a community gathering place . . . to deal with issues of war and peace and international cooperation and understanding . . . it's just incredible," Cohen said from Vermont last week.

Meeting Cohen "validated" her, Wicks said. Up until that point, "some people would say I was crazy - that businesspeople wouldn't do these things. He's the one that influenced my business life in a really dramatic way."

Wicks wants to make an equally profound impact with her memoir.

"I hope the book empowers people to make a change in our economy and also to recognize the cruelty that lies beneath many of our economic decisions," said the Fitler Square resident and lifelong beagle owner.

Make no mistake. The woman who hosted dine-in-your-pajamas brunches at the White Dog has a mighty serious streak.

She is a devotee of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and led groups of customers and employees on trips to political hot spots such as Vietnam and Nicaragua to support farmers and restaurant operators struggling against threats to life and property.

She was arrested in the 1990s for civil disobedience at Fort Benning, Ga., and spent a day in the stockade for protesting the role of the U.S. Army School of Americas in training non-U.S. soldiers implicated in massacres and repressions throughout Latin America. In White Dog's neighborhood, she once lay down in the street to block a bulldozer set to demolish properties to make way for chain stores.

As a young girl growing up outside Pittsburgh, Wicks was a fort-building tomboy who fought her femininity, only to allow it to shape her business philosophy as an adult.

In the book, she describes that philosophy as "balancing my feminine and masculine qualities to build a new economy - one that is prosperous and strong, yet one where compassionate and loving relationships matter more than money." And by relationships, she means dealings with customers, suppliers, and employees.

"Using the word love in the business world sometimes shuts people down. They think you're not a real businessperson," Wicks acknowledged in an interview. But business, like life, "needs a balance between the head and heart."

Recognizing that her work and travel for the local-living-economies movement were affecting the quality of her attention to White Dog, Wicks sold the restaurant in 2009. (She still owns the property at 34th and Sansom.)

She made sure, however, that the mission she prescribed for it would continue - at least for the life of the 15-year "social contract" with buyer Marty Grims. It includes a requirement that seafood choices be approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and that coffee, tea, vanilla, cinnamon, and chocolate served there must be fair-trade items.

The once-anti-profit-minded Wicks came to embrace the notion of at least making enough to cover business and personal expenses and fund a variety of nonprofit ventures. She cofounded the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and created the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia.

Leanne Krueger-Braneky, the local group's longtime executive director who recently resigned for a BALLE job, praised White Dog as "a community-scale business that has had a deep and positive impact on its customers, suppliers, and employees."

As an author, public speaker, and mentor, Wicks said, she hopes to encourage a whole new generation of like-minded entrepreneurs. (Find a list of her appearances at www.judywicks.com.)

"I want young businesspeople to know," she said, "that you can have a beautiful business that treats all the stakeholders with fairness and compassion and still have enough financially - that you don't have to be a martyr."


About Judy

Age: 65

Company: Beautiful Business L.L.C.

New book: Good Morning, Beautiful Business

Hometown: Ingomar, Allegheny County

Currently lives in:

 Fitler Square

Roommates: Beagles

Jack and Dee-Dee

Noteworthy business accomplishment:

Founded the White Dog Cafe, a socially progressive restaurant

Nonprofit creations: Business Alliance for Local Living Economies; Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia

Other job titles: Author, speaker, mentor, activist


Contact Diane Mastrull

at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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