Food Service & Agriculture, Small Business & Startups, and Sustainability

Local First hosts luncheon with farm-to-table pioneer

February 11, 2015
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Local First hosts luncheon with farm-to-table pioneer
Judy Wicks. Courtesy Judy Wicks

The term farm to table didn’t even exist when local food movement pioneer Judy Wicks opened the White Dog Café in Philadelphia in 1983.

Wicks began her restaurant using locally sourced produce and within a decade, began incorporating locally sourced and humanely raised meat products as well.

Wicks will be in town to deliver a presentation and sign copies of her book at a Local First luncheon this Friday.

Advent of farm-to-table

“When I was growing up, my parents had a fairly substantial vegetable garden, and we also lived in a small town that had a lot of small farms around us,” Wicks said. “We would go to the farm stands all the time and eat from our own garden. That is how I was raised. So without even knowing that a local food movement was about to happen, I just decided that was what I wanted for my new restaurant.”

Wicks said it was easy to source locally grown produce, but finding the meats for her restaurant was a little bit more challenging, and it took more time to build the relationships needed to supply the restaurant.

“Most of our organic fruit and vegetable farmers had nothing to do with animal production, but one did, and he was the link,” Wicks said. “We were getting free-range pastured chicken and eggs from him, and we asked about pigs. . . . He had a business as a middle man for some of the farms out in Lancaster County, and he would buy products from other farmers and resell them.”

As White Dog Café switched to more locally sourced and humanely raised animal products, the restaurant spent a lot of time focused on educating its customers on the differences and the reasons for the slightly higher menu prices.

“We did a lot to try and educate our customers, so they would understand why it did cost more,” she said. “We would have dinners, the Farmer Sunday Supper, where farmers would come and talk to customers about their farms.”

Wicks said initially she saw what she was doing as giving her a competitive edge, but eventually she realized if she really cared about the reasons behind what she was doing, she needed to share with her competitors.

“I moved from being a competitive business person to a cooperative one,” Wicks said. “We saw buying from local farmers as our competitive advantage, our niche, because we were the only restaurant doing it to the extent that we were.

“But then I realized if I really did care about the animals and environment and consumer health, that I would not keep this as my competitive advantage, but rather would share the supplier information with my competitors. That was the real turning point.”

Continuing farm-to-table

Today, the farm-to-table movement is in full swing, and Wicks said she’s excited to see how mainstream it’s become.

“It's very inspiring to see how many restaurants now have at least something on their menus that are from a local farm, and many of them are advertising themselves as farm-to-table restaurants,” she said. “We didn’t even have that terminology back then.”

Wicks has since sold the White Dog Café, but she made sure the restaurant would continue as a locally sourced venture.

“I put the trademark for the name White Dog Café into my personal ownership, which I maintain ownership of, and then I sold the corporation without the name,” she explained. “Then I licensed the name to the new owners with a social contract that requires them to buy from local farmers and use only humanely raised meats.”

Local First luncheon

Wicks will speak on Friday at the Local First luncheon being held in Grand Rapids, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at Bistro Bella Vita, at 44 Grandville Ave. SW.

Her presentation — “Building a New Economy: What’s Love Got to Do with It?” — will include information about her journey operating the White Dog Café, as well as the importance of balancing male and female energy in business.

“In general, I talk about bringing masculine and feminine energy into balance in our economy and decision making,” Wicks said. “Not speaking of gender, but the masculine and feminine energies that are in all people. A farmer once said to me, ‘Successful farming is the balance between the feminine and the masculine,’ which he saw as nurturing and efficiency.

“If you have too much efficiency and not enough nurturing, you may have a well-run farm, but you’re not going to have a good product. If you have too much nurturing and not enough efficiency, you might have beautiful tomatoes, but you are going to go out of business, because you aren’t using your time wisely.”

Her book

Wicks will also be signing copies of her award-winning memoir “Good Morning, Beautiful Business: the Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer.”

The book won the gold medal for business leadership from Nautilus National Book Awards in 2014.

Registration

Tickets to the luncheon are between $15-$25 and can be purchased via the Local First website.

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