Judy Wicks, Owner, White Dog Cafe, Philadelphia It ain't easy being green, but this Philly institution proves that being good to the earth can be good for the wallet too.
By Justin Martin

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe is so crunchy that it makes the average Berkeley bistro look like a hangout for Dick Cheney. But don't be deceived by appearances. While owner Judy Wicks uses her café to push a variety of social causes and adheres to organic principles in running it, she is also a canny entrepreneur who has never forgotten that she's in business to make a buck. The White Dog says it posted a $370,000 net profit in 2002 on $5 million in revenues. That's a 7.4% margin in an industry that averages more like 3%. "I would describe myself as an activist business person," says Wicks.

A born entrepreneur, she hatched all kinds of money-making schemes as a kid, such as gathering bits of scrap wood from construction sites, painting pictures on them, and selling them to amused neighbors. Wicks opened the White Dog in 1983 as a storefront muffin shop. Mostly her clientele consisted of students and faculty from the nearby University of Pennsylvania. Over the years the White Dog has just kept growing, annexing the ground floors of three adjacent Victorian-era row houses, plus space for a gift shop, the Black Cat. The restaurant now seats 200 and serves what might be termed casual bistro fare: burgers, pasta, and salads.

But Wicks and chef Kevin von Klause manage their supply chain with an assiduousness usually reserved for Fortune 500 corporations. Whenever possible, the White Dog buys produce that's grown organically, sans pesticides and chemicals. The restaurant also makes a point of buying locally, from small farmers. The free-range chickens come from Aaron Stoltzfus's farm in the Amish community of nearby Lancaster County. "For us, it's about personal relationships," says Wicks. "Corporate farming destroys the relationship between restaurants and farmers, and farmers and their land and animals." But beyond the philosophy, these efforts guarantee foodstuffs that are fresher and often taste better as well.

Hewing to an ever-expanding list of environmental considerations and running a profitable restaurant is a tough balancing act. Wicks and company basically do cost-benefit analyses on each challenge and determine what to do. In 2002 the White Dog became the first business in Pennsylvania to get 100% of its electricity from wind power--at a 15% premium--because Wicks felt the added expense was affordable. But the kitchen staff will keep using regular cooking oil instead of the more appealing organic oil, because the latter is five times as expensive. "We don't want to bankrupt the business to go totally organic," says chef von Klause.

This attention to detail in trying to create a green business has won the White Dog an intensely loyal following, making it something of a Philly institution, and Wicks has leveraged that fealty into new business opportunities. Once a year the White Dog offers so-called eco tours, busing city slickers out to the hinterland to visit a family farm or a water-treatment facility. Monday nights the restaurant hosts a celebrity lecture series, featuring speakers such as Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation. Mondays, of course, are sluggish in the restaurant business, and the speakers have proved a sly way to draw customers.

Such mercantile instincts are the key to Wicks's success. And it helps mightily that the food has drawn its share of accolades. Condé Nast Traveler named the White Dog one of 50 American restaurants "worth the journey." Says Wicks, whose own journey has proved rewarding in many ways: "I totally believe that you can do well and do good at the same time."