G-Sync: Judy Wicks, Locals' Hero

Just over 10 years ago, an individual in the sustainable movement came to Grand Rapids. She arrived to share insights about the importance of supporting local businesses and to creating bold practices. At first, such change might terrify us (or our boardrooms) because the actions she advocated were too many. While her recommendations were, at the time, pioneering new ground, they were the right course of action to take. However, they appeared risky to some.

Years ago, when the city of Grand Rapids took those risks, we helped bring about incredible change not just for us as individuals, but most importantly, for our region that was transformed for the better.  Judy Wicks’ project, the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies (BALLE), was all about boldness and her simple message of 'I have seen it work in my town, it will work here' moved many of us.

As I reflected on those early planning meetings, I thought about what a sustainable Grand Rapids would look like as we prepared for Judy Wicks' arrival to our city more than a decade ago. I began to remember what organizer Gail Philbin, director of BALLE West Michigan (now Local First) was seeking to accomplish as we sat down with members of Plenty Creative.  Dottie Rhodes (formerly of Gemini Publications) and Gwen O'Brien (a fresh-faced graduate of Kendal College) would discuss with us what our image should be moving forward.

Oh, how the times have changed, and how much the better we are for it.

When Wicks opened her White Dog Café on the first floor of her Victorian brownstone home in West Philadelphia in 1983, she was looking to stabilize her own business life through the business practices she would create. She also began to understand how her business would touch others.

Her business grew from a tiny muffin shop to a 200-seat restaurant that the community would come to adopt as they waited enthusiastically for a table. Wicks, as illustrated in the popular lecture she has given over the last 10 years and one that is soon to be included in her 2013 book, Good Morning, Beautiful Business, would go on to learn four basic tenets of good business that needed to be in place for her to consider what she was doing a success.

Wicks had already been a success in her region. She was a co-founder of the Free People’s Store, now beloved and well known all over the country as Urban Outfitters.

For the White Dog Cafe to be a success, her business venture needed to address the state of the world from a personal level and also a global one. So, Wicks set out at the start to create a business that made hard choices during a time when sustainable practices were just beginning to be talked about again.

And yes, again.

“What I attempted to do is not new because the practices I put into place are the same ones that have been around for a while. It is just that we had forgotten how to do them,” says Wicks.

Wicks, now 65, is referencing these seemingly forgotten topics: pay for her employees, sources for her food, customer service, that the world outside her stoop is also her community. We are all connected.

As the business owner of the White Dog Cafe, Wicks was able to enact bold moves. For example, she added hot water on demand and cut down on the high energy costs  of keeping an ancient boiler running 24/7 by installing a solar water heater to pre-heat the water for the restaurant.

The White Dog Cafe also became the first restaurant in the state of Pennsylvania to receive its electricity from renewable sources.  

When she noticed her employees were having to work two to three jobs to keep up with their living expenses, she provided living wages, a term still radical in many circles.

“I just did not want to lose my employees,” said Wicks in her first Grand Rapids visit. “Besides, I liked working with them and knew it was the right thing to do.”

When Wicks discovered the way the industrial meat industry treated animals, she swiftly moved to find local farmers. They brought to her table the very best meats of the Philly region. She once lent money to a pig farmer to help him get a refrigerated truck to make deliveries to her restaurant.

Wicks did not stop there. She did the unthinkable in business. The entrepreneur went to her competitors and invited them to purchase meat from the same sources she used because, as she said, it was the right thing to do and frankly, the food tasted better.

When Wicks was still the owner of the White Dog Cafe (she sold it in 2009), she used to host Howl parties for her staff each year. They would gather after the taxes were filed to howl at their advances in sustainability practices.  This was a joyous occasion because Wicks always sought to include her staff when possible in the growing of the business, even going as far as to offer ownership to a few key employees.

Wicks even hosted lavish and community rich events that celebrated the diversity of her region, always making sure to let people know they were welcome in her community. But she also is willing to roll up her sleeves and jump in to support the causes she believes in as illustrated in No Fracking (photo courtesy of JJ Tiziou).

Creating positive change has always been Wicks’ mission. “For me, each journey into change begins with taking inventory of where we are or what we are doing,” says Wicks.

“As I move past this entrepreneurial stage of my life, I am most concerned about preparing communities for the impact of climate change that is coming.”

Wicks is very deliberate by not saying if, but rather when, because she has seen firsthand the effects of climate change impacting our world.

“These days I am more concerned with how are we going to prepare our communities for this climate change. I think the best way to start is to begin to look more closely at local self-reliance as the long distance supply chain for basic staples that will need to be in place to meet these needs,” says Wicks. 

She cautions me about not going negative in light of this news: “This is really a return to the happier times of our lives that we have not seen for more than 50 years in our country. This return to the simple life, a life removed from materialism that has not produced the happiness it promised, is where we are heading. And this work to revive our happiness level is for all of us and a big part of my life moving forward.”

In 2005, Judy Wicks was recognized for her contribution to our society when she received The Williams-Sonoma James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year Award for her contribution to local family farmers, independent community-based businesses and community arts.

There are few people in this world who I can count have had a direct effect on the direction of my life. One was the contemporary photographer Duane Michals, who taught me to work with what I have adding his take on the “end justifies the means."  Later, it was our local neighbor advocate, Carol Moore, who taught me to look around at what we have and fight for that which is worth preserving for the future’s generations. If you drive down Wealthy Street, much of her boldness is still at work today.

But meeting Judy Wicks presented to me a new way of working where creativity was crucial to the solution’s outcome. We need to give ourselves permission to do it and build our team organically in our region.

The result for me has been a decade of unique projects neighborhood based in my community.

On Thursday, May 17 at CityFlats on Monroe Center, Green Drinks Grand Rapids will debut a new way of how we do business.

Working as member of the Rapid Growth editorial team and a board member of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), I have been concerned over the years about opening new pathways for ownership in the sustainable conversation in areas often overlooked.

But with our new programming guidelines hatched with my co-committee members of Starla McDermott, Anthony Puzzuoli and a host of consultants in the environmental field, we are seeking to empower local establishments to consider new ways of doing business while encouraging them to work together through direct sharing of knowledge in the setting of the monthly Green Drinks chapter.

For me, my bold new journey began after I received a Styrofoam cup of coffee from one of our airport’s vendors.

As I began to ponder what it meant for this to be the first item received by people visiting our much-awarded green city, I began to think of ways we could adopt a smart strategy beyond the typical slam-bam Twitter hit-and-run in which others often participate.

The idea blossomed through conversations with local organizations concerned about issues of sustainability, like WMEAC and Local First. We began to collectively seek avenues to empower people to make positive changes for our region’s environmental and personal health.

So the boldness of Judy Wicks in her community created boldness in our region, and it is our hopes as the Business Alliance for Local Living Economics (BALLE) celebrates their first North American conference in the Midwest’s epicenter for innovation that we will, as a community, inspire someone to create boldness wherever they call home.

These small acts of loving our beautiful small businesses, according to Wicks, create big changes and with a little time and nurturing, may give us back our happiness, too. You may not be able to buy it, but it is something you can almost touch in our region as we learn to love local.

No matter where you are on the journey to providing a sustainable community, we do it best when we bring others along for the ride. On Thursday, May 17, we hope area restaurants and bars join us in these bold first steps as we Make Good (on) Green.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  [email protected]

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Editor’s Note on the No Fracking Photo: Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou is a photographer specializing in portraiture and movement documentation; he has never encountered an un-photogenic person in his life. His images are used both in corporate and editorial contexts as well as arts and activism. Based in West Philadelphia, JJ uses his work to celebrate the beautiful people around him who are working to make the world a better place. Some samples of his work can be found at www.jjtiziou.net, www.HowPhillyMoves.org and www.EveryoneIsPhotogenic.com

Image of Judy Wicks and Tommy Allen (then with On The Town magazine) from the launch of BALLE WM (now called Local First).

Image of Judy Wicks at her desk courtesy of photographer OhChiik.


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