Why White Dog Café Founder Judy Wicks Believes in the Power of a Local Economy

Local Businesses Can Work Together to Create a Sustainable System and More Resilient Communities

Judy Wicks

White Dog Cafe Founder Judy Wicks gave a presentation on leading with love and promoting local economies at the 2016 Best for the World Gathering.
Photo by Venice Blue

Judy Wicks believes that triple-bottom-line business models which focus on people, profit, planet needs to add a fourth bottom line, a fourth “P”: place. She says business leaders now need to work outside of their own companies with the community and even with competitors to build networks of value-based businesses.

As founder of White Dog Café, Wicks created a unique exit strategy that allowed her to sell the business, but keep the name. The new owners licensed the name of the restaurant, but had to meet the terms of a social contract in order to keep the license. Those terms included keeping a priority for purchasing from local producers and helping to sustain the local community.

“To me, business is about relationships. Money is simply a tool. Business is about relationships with everybody that we buy from and sell to and work with and about the relationship with Earth itself. My business is really the way that I expressed my love of life,” Wicks says.

A local economy that is a sustainable system, a connection of local businesses that work to create more resilient communities, is her vision for the way forward.

Below is an edited transcript of the presentation Wicks made as part of the 2016 Best for the World Gathering at the University of California, Berkeley. You can view a video of her presentation, as well as the other panels, interviews and presentations from the event, at our Best for the World hub. Also, don’t miss learning more about all of our 2016 Best for the World honorees.

Judy Wicks on Building a Local Economy

Judy Wicks: … Today, I want to talk about why I feel that local ownership and local supply chains, as well as fair trade supply chains, are important, especially in this critical time of climate change. And how I reimagined growth in a way that is critical to building resilient and joyful communities. So, I’ll start the slides now.

When I lived above the shop. I lived upstairs above the White Dog Café for 26 years. I had a sign in my closet that I opened and saw each morning. It said, “Good morning, beautiful business,” and it was a reminder to me of just how beautiful business is when we put our creativity and our care and our love and our energy into producing a product or service that we then offer to our community. It was a time in the day when I would think about the farmers out in the fields bringing in … fresh organic vegetables to bring into town that day. The farm animals out in sunshine and pasture. A goat header, Dubby, who said that when she kisses her goat’s ears it makes the cheese better. I think that’s true.

To me, business is about relationships. Money is simply a tool. Business is about relationships with everybody that we buy from and sell to and work with and about the relationship with Earth itself. My business is really the way that I expressed my love of life. That’s what made it a thing of beauty…

The White Dog … was a pioneering the local-food movement…. I would come home from Branch Creek Farm where we’d buy from and Mark, the farmer, once told me that successful farming is the balance between feminine energy and masculine energy which he described as efficiency and nurturing. If you have too much efficiency, you might have a well-run farm, but you’re not going to have great tomatoes. On the other hand, if you have too much nurturing and not enough efficiency, you might have great tomatoes but you’re going to go out of business because you’re not using your time wisely.

This really got me thinking about our economy and how our economy is unbalanced. There’s more masculine energy than feminine energy… When I say masculine and feminine energies about those in each of us men and women, both. I’m not talking about gender. One of the most horrible examples of this imbalance is factory farming. The name of the game here is how little space and light do we give these chickens? How little food and water?… To get the cheapest egg possible. Certainly no nurturing. No feminine energy in this situation.

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At the White Dog, we switched to totally pastured chicken and cage-free eggs. … Then I heard about the horrible confinement farming of pigs. This was really a turning point for me because it was so horrific. Then we switched to all pastured pork. Then I heard about the plight of the cow. I switched to all grass-fed beef. … I finally got to the point where I opened my menu and said to myself, “Well, Judy, you finally done it.” Our restaurant is the only one in the area that buys only humanely based meat and is really seasonal with our fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

This is going to be our market niche, our competitive advantage. This is all that was, but then I thought to myself, “Well, Judy, if you really do care about those farm animals; if you really do care about the small farmers being driven out of business by the factory farms; if you really care about the environment where these factory farms are polluting the rivers in the area and so on; if you care about the workers and these horrible slaughterhouses and factory farms, and you care about the consumers who are eating meat that’s full of hormones and antibiotics, then rather than keeping your suppliers to yourself, you’ll share your suppliers with your competitors.” That was a really important time for me because I realized that there is no such thing as “one sustainable business.” We can only be part of a sustainable system. We have to cooperate … Including with our competitors, in order to build such a system.

In the early stages of my 40 years as an entrepreneur, I measured success by the growth of sales and profits. Then I moved to the stage where I measured my success by the triple bottom line, to have the best possible product practices within my company, but then I realized that that was not enough. That we actually have to work outside of our companies with our community and competitors to build whole regional systems that share our values. So I’m thinking perhaps we need to add a fourth “P.” That it’s people, planet, profit and place, because I feel like our success is really measured by the health and well-being of our communities and our ecosystems where we live.

I decided that I would share with my competitors, and I asked the farmer who was bringing us in two pigs a week. … I asked him if he wanted to deliver to more customers. He was bringing us two whole pigs a week. We would get the whole animals. He said he’d love to deliver to other restaurants but that he needed a refrigerated truck. … So I loaned him the $30,000 to buy the truck, so that he could deliver pork to my competitors.

Then, I started a nonprofit called Fair Food where I hired the first staff person using my own profits. … Her job was to go around to the other restaurants and teach the chefs how to work with farmers and give them a list of the 20, 25 farms that White Dog was buying from. Fair Food is now … 16 years old and has a farm stand in the Reading Terminal, that’s five days a week, all year long, every month, and 100 percent local products. Not just farms. A hundred different producers from the farms and also from small food enterprises.

… I heard about climate change back in the ‘90s. Pennsylvania, I knew had been deregulated, as California was, so we could actually choose a renewable-energy supplier, but I hadn’t been motivated to switch until I was walking in the woods during a drought. All of a sudden, I just got it. I could see the effect of the drought on a place of the world that I cared about and finally realized that this is what it would be like. It’s just a sense of there’s fear in the air. A sense of a fire. It was so dry. Not even the birds were singing. So I just got it. I became a tree hugger. I hugged a big oak tree in the woods and planned when I went back to Philadelphia to sign up for renewable energy. White Dog was the first business in Pennsylvania to buy 100 percent of our electricity from sustainable sources.

Once I understood about local food systems, local energy systems, I started to envision a global economy. To have a sustainable global economy it needs to be comprised of a network of sustainable local economies, where the local economies are self-reliant on basic needs. That food and energy and water come from the local region and … other basic needs, such as clothing and building materials. … Then other things that are needed from other communities, like chocolate or tea or whatever, are imported through fair-trade relationships, and everything that the community has in excess can be exported, and anything that the community has that’s unique and valued in a global market place, be it a sustainable fashion or an invention … by a local entrepreneur, is also exported.

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One of the basic premises is decentralized ownership. That we need to decentralize ownership of our businesses, both manufacturing retail away from this global economy that’s really dominated by these large multinational corporations. … The more broad[ly] spread ownership is, the more broad[ly] spread economic and political power becomes. We also need to move our investments from Wall Street to local banks, and we’ll be talking more about impact investment in the next panel. I believe when you invest in your local community, you not only get a financial return, but you get a living return. The benefit of living in a more prosperous and happy community.

… That the paradigms of business grow or die was something that, when I was first a business person, I agreed with. I had to grow to stay in business. Once we reached a sustainable size at the White Dog, I questioned this. The White Dog started as a takeout coffee and muffin shop in 1983. By 1989, we had almost reached $5 million in sales with 200 seats in the restaurant. Whoops. … People would come to me and say, “Do you want to start in Newark or [Washington,] D.C., or whatever,” and I’d always say, “no.” … I realized that I didn’t want to [expand the chain] because what was most important to me in my business was the authenticity of the relationships I had with my staff, with my community, with my farmers and my customers. I decided that I wanted to stay small. Instead of starting a White Dog in somebody else’s community, I started a Black Cat in my own community next door. I looked to see what my community needed, and we needed a store to make locally made products, as well as fair trade, and that’s what the White Dog became.

… Chains and national brands are profit-invasive species, that they go into other people’s communities and smother out the indigenous businesses. So I began to think, “Well, how does nature grow?” Well, nature grows by growing deeper in place. Nature grows to become more complex, more diverse, more resilient and more adaptive to the needs of the ecosystem, and that’s just how business can grow, to become more adaptive to the needs of the community. I’ll give you my favorite example of this and that’s Zingerman’s Delicatessen, a very popular deli in Ann Arbor. Could’ve been a national chain, but instead of becoming a chain, they looked to see what their community needed and the way their business could replace imports. They started a creamery to make their own cheeses and yogurt and ice cream. They started a bakery. They started a candy company. They started a fair-trade coffee-roasting business. They started a farm. And in all these ways, created more owners also, because they gave ownership opportunities to their employees to lead each of these businesses and own these business. Now they have what they call the Zingerman community of businesses.

We can look at many businesses that are needed in a farm-to-table movement that haven’t been filled yet. We need more … greenhouses and processors. We need to have those middle aisles in the grocery store filled with local harvests as well, like canneries and pasta-makers, and butchers of small-scale slaughterhouses, and more vegan … food businesses, and mills for local grains, and breweries and more retailers and grocery stores.

There’s also the dirt-to-shirt movement. … Eric Henry from TS Designs in North Carolina … prints logos on T-shirts, and he was noticing those T-shirts were made in China and thought, “This is ridiculous, because North Carolina is cotton country.” So he connected the local supply chain from the farmer to the ginner to the … I forget what they’re all called. The miller. The cutter. The sewer. And [he] was able to make a locally made T-shirt. All this happened within a couple hundred miles of each other and produce what they call, “Cotton of the Carolinas.”

That’s another place where we need more entrepreneurs, to re-establish our “fiber sheds.” Now that industrial hemp is starting to become legalized in some states, there’s a whole new opportunity to do a dirt-to-shirt from farmer to retailer. Forest to furniture. All the different products we make from wood: furniture, building materials, utensils, housewares, toys, musical instruments, recycled wood and paper for paper products. Botanicals to body. All the medicinal plants for holistic healing and soaps and shampoos, lotions, salves. Importantly, sun to socket. All the various businesses we need similar to manufacturing and installation: public transit that’s run on renewables, bicycles, electric cars, charging stations, battery companies and so on.

I’m not meaning to say that all local companies are small and mom-and-pops. There’s an analogy in nature, which is the mother tree. The mother tree is much bigger than most of the other plants and trees in the area. They have a network underground which provides nutrients to the other plants in the forest. That’s how I see larger B corps, which our larger B corps, outstanding Corps, are out there like mother trees that are developing fair-trade supply chains and they’re nurturing the other businesses in their communities.

To me, the most important thing we have to look at as businesspeople is addressing climate change. It’s been said by other speakers. This is a historic challenge. Humans are really sleepwalking toward extinction the way we’re acting now. I believe local economies cannot only reduce carbon of long-distance shipping and care for our local ecosystems, but we’re also preparing our communities for the impact of climate change via building self-reliance in our basic needs, so that we’re not dependent on long-distance supply chains that could be easily disrupted by climate chaos and the social upheaval that’s beginning to happen. There’s real urgency for this. So I feel like we need to really reimagine growth. We need to grow by building regional self-reliance and connecting our local supply chains to build sustainable local economies, but we also have to use local supplies and local labor for local consumption, so that there’s not these long-distance suppliers and we have that self-reliance that we can depend on during the tough years ahead.

I also feel that we have to … find ways to grow that are not material, because we are already spending more, using more materials than the Earth can regenerate and also making more waste than can be consumed. We have to reduce consumption. We have to figure out ways to grow without using natural products. We can increase our knowledge to really become knowledgeable about our place. Where does our energy come from and our food come from? Or water come from? And so on. How can we protect our places and continually learn the latest in sustainable practices? We can expand our consciousness to value life more than money, and I think this is one of the most important problems that we have, is to really change the way we think about success as consumers in our society. It’s not about accumulating more stuff and bigger houses and more cars and so on. It’s really about valuing life and living in a way that’s in harmony with our natural systems.

We can deepen our relationships with our customers and our employers and our suppliers and our friends. We can develop our creativity to really think outside the box in these critical times. We can build a community and we can have more fun, because I feel that working in community is much more fun. For those of us who are working together, there’s more collective joy in having a vision for our economy and our community that we can work on together. So we all belong to the vibrant community of life on Earth, and when we understand that life is interconnected, we can feel the suffering of the pigs. We can feel the struggles of the small farmers. The suffering of dying larva that’s becoming extinct, and the many people and animals that are suffering from all the many toxins industry has put into our environment. I believe that if we are going to transform our economy from life-restoring to life-giving, it really begins with awakening our hearts. Awakening the heart of the entrepreneur, the investor and all of us as consumers.

Your company can become a force for good when you download our FREE Special Report, Changemakers like John Replogle and Mandy Cabot Reveal B Corporation Benefits for Their Businesses.

I made that critical decision to share with my competitors. I was afraid at first. I was afraid that my sales would go down, that my profits would go down, and I didn’t make that decision to share and cooperate because I figured it out in my head that it was the right thing to do intellectually. It was because I loved the pigs that I felt it in my heart. It was really my love of animals, of nature, of community that was greater than my fear. When we love our places and take responsibility for them and when we open our hearts and lead with love, we can build just and sustainable and joyful communities. If we’re going to succeed and leave a valuable future for our children and the children of all species, it will be because humankind has evolved to take our rightful place in the community of life. Not as exploiters but as lovers. Thank you very much. Thank you.

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