Tucked safely behind the walls of three elegant brownstones in University City, White Dog Cafe has all the trappings of a stuffy, pretentious bistro.
The intimate atmosphere, dim lighting and piano room are nice enough to impress your mother. But even in all its sophistication, the restaurant attracts locals of every age who can appreciate its down-to-earth mission.
Located at 3420 Sansom St., White Dog Cafe has been encouraging social action for more than 20 years.
Owner Judy Wicks counts customers, staff, the community and Mother Earth as equally important components of her business.
Before opening the restaurant in 1983, Wicks and her then-husband founded Free People’s Store, an apparel boutique now known as Urban Outfitters.
After the two divorced, Wicks launched White Dog out of her own home with bank loans and help from family members.
Originally, the shop only sold muffins. Today, the full-service restaurant stretches throughout three adjacent buildings and includes a gift shop.
“I was looking for a way to express my values through my business,” said Wicks, who still lives above the restaurant and enjoys interacting with neighbors and customers regularly. At White Dog, she proudly promotes concepts like social justice, peace and cultural diversity through special programs and partnerships.
The restaurant hosts events like the Native American Thanksgiving Dinner, where guests can enjoy a holiday meal and hear Native Americans discuss contemporary issues affecting their community.
Quite simply, White Dog tries its best to make everyone happy. In addition to offering an original dining experience for patrons, Wicks encourages her staff with generous pay and benefits.
All workers at White Dog earn at least $8 an hour, a figure well above the minimum wage of $5.15. She puts 20 percent of the restaurant’s profits back into local businesses, and donates excess food to Philabundance, which redistributes the leftovers to residents and area hunger charities. The restaurant also pleases Earth lovers, as it generates all of its electricity from wind sources.
“Every decision I make is a balancing act,” said Wicks, who must make tough choices to keep her business true to its mission.
Even with such strong philosophies, White Dog sacrifices none of the culinary creativity that keeps rumbling bellies coming back for more.
Whenever possible, the cooking staff uses organic vegetables and meats from humane farmers to create the restaurant’s imaginative specialties.
The grill menu features hearty staples with an eco-friendly twist, like free-range organic Buffalo wings. On its pricier dinner menu, White Dog also offers inventive vegetarian entrees, such as crispy tofu with stir-fried vegetables dressed in spicy curry broth.
To wash it all down, the 21-and-over crowd can enjoy “Leg Lifter Lager,” a private label beer which Wicks promises “doesn’t taste like dog pee.”
“It’s classy, but laid-back,” said Arielle Brousse, a Penn junior and White Dog loyalist who frequents the restaurant with her family. “We’ve always loved the strong political stances they’ve taken about free trade and organic food, and their efforts to educate the people of Philadelphia and promote political discussion and awareness.”
As White Dog Cafe approaches its silver anniversary and Wicks ponders the future, she worries that younger entrepreneurs would rather get rich without considering global consequences.
But her satisfaction rests in knowing that her efforts to promote responsible business have influenced people beyond the boundaries of Philadelphia.
“I’ve done everything I can do to make the world a better place,” she said, “even though others cannot understand it.”
Benae Mosby can be reached at email@example.com.