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White Dog Cafe a Philly Institution

July 26, 2003

PHILADELPHIA (AP) _ A trio of brownstones near the University of Pennsylvania is the home base for a restaurant that its owner says proves social activism and making a living aren’t mutually exclusive.

For the past 20 years, Judy Wicks has shaped her White Dog Cafe into a gourmet eatery, philanthropic foundation and liberal-minded advocacy organization.

``I like to joke that we use good food to lure innocent customers into social activism,″ said Wicks, who started the White Dog as a storefront muffin shop below her apartment.

The eatery has grown to become a Philadelphia institution and a successful business. The trio of brownstones includes a 200-seat restaurant and a gift shop, The Black Cat, and reported total 2002 revenues of $5 million.

``Twenty years ago, I just wanted to have a friendly, relaxed place for people to enjoy themselves,″ she said. ``I never thought about using it as a catalyst for social change, but it kind of grew as I grew.″

At today’s White Dog, customers can savor ``new American″ cuisine like wild Alaskan salmon filet with sorrel salsa verde, wash it down with a glass of organic wine, and join speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union, the magazine The Nation, and people in the community for salon-style sessions on topics from health care reform to foreign policy.

In addition, the restaurant points customers to minority-owned ``sister restaurants″ in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods _ and around the world in a goodwill and good-food tour.

So far, the culinary exchange tours have traveled to Nicaragua, Vietnam and Cuba, and will make the trip to feast at Israeli and Palestinian restaurants next month.

There also are White Dog mentoring programs and community tours focusing on arts, the environment, children and affordable housing. The Black Cat sells clothing and jewelry from local artists and quirky home decor and books, and plans are in the works to add locally made clothing to the mix.

``If we didn’t have really good food, the rest wouldn’t work,″ said Wicks. ``But along with the good food, we’ve built a community. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we do express the values we believe in and our customers appreciate that.″

Kitsie Converse, a 62-year-old artist, athlete and activist from Philadelphia, said the White Dog’s lecture series ``kept me from turning into a calcified mid-life relic, kept me thinking and informed and vibrant and alive.″

In 1998, Converse climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise money for breast cancer after attending what turned out to be a life-altering lecture at the White Dog from an expedition group.

``It’s getting beyond just your own life, your own time and place, your own neighborhood, to look at global issues and community issues that do affect your life and that you can do something about,″ she said. ``Judy is a treasure, she’s a gift.″

Wicks stresses that first-timers shouldn’t fear that they’ll walk into the White Dog and get inundated with offers to join Greenpeace or march in a peace rally _ but if they want to learn how to do that, they’re in the right place.

The socially responsible philosophy also extends into the kitchen _ with longtime chef Kevin von Klause’s cuisine culled largely from local family farms that employ humane and environmentally sensitive practices.

``At a time when many of our contemporaries buy toilet paper, T-bones, tuna _ everything _ from one big producer, we have a whole network,″ he said. ``And you can taste the difference in the food.″

Between 10 percent and 20 percent of the White Dog profits go to charity, and Wicks also recently established the White Dog Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit that works to bring locally grown food into the Philadelphia marketplace and promote humane and sustainable growers in the region.

After all these years, Wicks, 55, still lives above the White Dog, which Conde Nast Traveler named one of 50 American restaurants ``worth the journey.″

For Wicks, the journey so far has been fun and fulfilling. And she is looking forward to the journeys to come.

``My goal from the beginning was to create a business that was going to be my lifelong career,″ she said. ``Most restaurants don’t open with the intention of staying around forever. But I always intended this to be my life’s work.″


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