When White Dog Cafe opened in a row home in West Philadelphia in 1983, the farm-to-table movement wasn’t even a trend in the city. The restaurant was helmed by Judy Wicks, whose focus from the beginning was the community. She brought in students from a local high school to give them work experience. She sourced local ingredients and offered locally made beer long before that was the norm in restaurants. This year, White Dog Cafe celebrates 40 years of business.
“Judy was definitely ahead of her time,” Sydney Grims, a partner at Fearless Restaurant Group, says. Fearless, which runs several top restaurants in the Philadelphia area, bought White Dog Cafe from Wicks in 2009. The group worked closely with her to maintain the ethos of the restaurant.
“Everything was driven by relationships, and that’s what we’ve continued to focus on,” Grims says.
Sustainability since the beginning
When the restaurant was founded in the 1980s, sustainability wasn’t the catch-all term it is now.
“Judy was doing things then that now people love to talk about,” Grims says. White Dog Cafe used compostable containers, collected oyster shells in the back of the restaurant to regrow the floor of Chesapeake Bay, and was among the first businesses in the state to get all of its electricity from wind power. “People started to catch on in the 2000s, but White Dog has always done these things very organically, no pun intended,” Grims says.
Staying local was also part of White Dog’s ethos from the start. Wicks would drive her car to buy beer for the restaurant from Stoudt Brewing in Allentown because she knew owner Carol Stoudt, Grims says. In 2001, Wicks founded White Dog Community Enterprises, an organization connecting local farms and restaurants in an effort to bring more local produce to the city. Today, dishes such as mushroom soup made from Kennett Square’s beloved mushrooms are among the highlights at the restaurant.
When it came time to sell the business, White Dog stayed local, again.
Sydney Grims’ father Marty Grims has been in the hospitality business in Philadelphia since the mid-80s, when he helped open the restaurant at the then-new Center City Four Seasons Hotel. A graduate of Cornell’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration, Marty led the effort to buy White Dog Cafe in 2009.
“We’re fundamentally a local business,” Sydney Grims says. “I think that’s why Judy felt like it was a fit to work with us. We like keeping it hyperlocal.”
Growing the brand
Today, Fearless Restaurants operates five locations of White Dog Cafe, each with its own personality.
“We hire chefs, not kitchen managers,” Grims says. Menu mainstays such as mushroom soup, the burger, and beet and arugula salad, don’t change between locations. But there’s space for each restaurant to play with its food offerings.
The result is something many restaurateurs struggle to accomplish as they expand: a brand that feels both familiar and appropriately contextualized in its neighborhood. The original West Philly location has more options for vegans and vegetarians that frequent the neighborhood, while the Glen Mills location caters more to families with kids.
“Each market is different,” Grims says. “We work to celebrate that.”
At its core, Fearless Restaurants and White Dog Cafe are family businesses, which Grims believes is the key to their success. While they’re focused on growth, the approach is slow and steady, always oriented toward sustainable growth over speed.
“I think it’s really important that we grow,” Grims says. “ A lot of brands make the mistake of growing very quickly and they don’t really know who they are”
Fearless added four White Dog Cafe locations after it took over the business and plans to open another one later this year.
“In this business,” Sydney says. “If you stop growing, you die.”