Teaching the White Dog Cafe some new tricks

"My restaurants aren't a political statement," says Marty Grims, at the flagship White Dog Cafe. "But the commitment to using local food from small farmers and organic, sustainably raised ingredients whenever possible - that hasn’t changed."

We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.

When restaurateur Marty Grims took over West Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe in 2009, the restaurant was already a Philadelphia institution. Sustainable-food pioneer Judy Wicks had launched it back in 1983 as a small takeout shop selling muffins and coffee — originally, it was just her side project while she worked on publishing a local-sourcing book called the Philadelphia Resource Guide.

Over the next couple of decades, the White Dog became a living, breathing showcase for Wicks’ philosophies about the societal benefits of using local, organic, humanely raised ingredients. It also became an incubator of sorts, nurturing well-known kitchen talents like Marc Vetri and Aliza Green, and helping launch the restaurant careers of Wendy Smith Born (Metropolitan Bakery) and Ellen Yin (Fork, High Street on Market).

By turn of the millennium, though, Wicks had started to focus more on social activism than on running a restaurant. Society was finally catching up to her ideas, and she became an in-demand figure, called to speak at events and conferences around the world.

The restaurant itself was no longer her priority, it seemed, and, hit by the 2008 recession, the White Dog’s fortunes began to sag.

Wicks decided it was time to sell. She approached a friend who was an industry consultant, and he put her in touch with Grims, who at the time owned the Moshulu on Penn's Landing, several locations of the high-end prepared food spot Du Jour, and several restaurants at the Jersey Shore. The two restaurateurs knew each other only in passing, but within a few months, they were able to work out an agreement.

Grims bought the White Dog building and name from its founder, but Wicks maintained oversight to make sure it stayed true to its locavore mission. A social contract was signed, wherein Grims agreed to a yearly audit by Wicks, and the business changed hands.

Grims was excited with the opportunity to reinvent such an established brand. Over the next six years, he poured more than $2 million into the University City location, replacing the entire kitchen and revamping the many dining rooms. He also launched two additional White Dog Cafe locations — one in Wayne that opened in 2010 (and now does more business than the original), and one in Haverford, which just opened in May.

Sitting at a table in front of a wall covered with a giant painting of an adorable black-and-white terrier, Grims, 54, looked back on a lifetime of being in hospitality — both his father and grandfather were in the biz — and reflected on the accomplishment he felt this year when he realized his White Dog renovation was finally complete.

When did you first know you wanted to be a restaurateur?

I grew up in the business, so I always knew what I wanted to do. I'm third generation. My father and grandfather were both in the restaurant business. My father had a restaurant at 19th and Ludlow in the '60s, called Central Tavern. My grandfather - he was from Sicily; when he was 12, his parents sent him to New York with a shoeshine kit to go meet his older brothers, and they were already in the restaurant business in New York.

Did you work in your father’s restaurant?

Ever since I was in kindergarten, I would go to his restaurant every Saturday, that was my day. I'd count the money out of the jukebox and the cigarette machine.

What was the first restaurant you opened on your own?

I went to school for hospitality [at Cornell], and after I graduated I came back to Philadelphia and was part of the opening management team for Fountain at the Four Seasons. That was a phenomenal experience - seeing that the challenges corporations have are in getting started sometimes no different than small businesses. Then, when I was 25, I left two open two restaurants on the Main Line with the man who had been the chef at Fountain, Jean-Francois Taquet. They were called Taquet and Bravo.

How long did you operate those?

I kept those for 20 years. Bravo was a brasserie - no tablecloths - and Taquet (which I renamed Passarelle) was fine dining. At the beginning, two-thirds of our business came from the fine-dining component and one third came from the casual side. But as time went by, it shifted, and the casual side started to get more popular. At the end of two decades, I felt that I had nothing new to say there, so I sold them in 2007. I had opened other restaurants down at the shore by that time. I also bought the Moshulu, in 2002 or so, and I wanted to concentrate on those.

When did you first become aware of the White Dog Cafe?

Being from Philadelphia, everyone knew of the White Dog. I ate here a few times, even. It had what was like a grandma’s house feeling.

In a good way?

I think so, sure.

How did you end up buying it?

Judy approached a friend of mine thinking it was time to sell. I think that she felt - not to put words in her mouth - but I think that she came to a point where she had realized that there wasn't someone already on her staff that could take the torch and keep it going. I think she realized it needed new blood, new energy. It obviously needed financial resources committed to it. She wanted to make sure it continued.

Did you make changes when you took over?

I felt that White Dog was an incredible brand. Judy was so far ahead of her time that it was more relevant today than ever. But it was around 25 years old, and was obviously in dire need of investment. If you go online and read what was written [when I took over], people thought I was changing what White Dog was about. But for me, the restaurant wasn't about social activism.

So you changed the philosophy?

Not really. I'm a restaurateur - it was about hospitality. It was about food, it was about wine, it was about entertainment, collecting people together. My restaurants aren't a political statement. But the commitment to using local food from small farmers and organic, sustainably raised ingredients whenever possible - that hasn’t changed. Judy does an audit with us several times a year - we have an agreement that all the parameters that must be held true.

You definitely changed the decor.

We replaced everything. Everything has been upgraded. We invested close to $2 million, when all is said and done. It was a big undertaking. All the carpets, all the walls, all the heating. Every dining room has a different feeling, which people really love. And I think that at the end of it, Judy and her family were really, really pleased that they now saw the business was set up to be relevant for a lot more years.

And you opened another White Dog in Wayne?

Yes, five years ago this November. And the response to it has been great. It does extremely well.

How does it compare to the University City location of White Dog, revenue-wise?

Wayne does more in business — the check average is higher. The menus are very similar, but the check average is around $10 more in Wayne. They're having more courses, or spending more on wine. The demographics in the suburbs is very homogeneous. The audience here is much more diverse - there's students, faculty, visitors. But now, the renovation here will bring in $1 million more revenue, I can say that. After we finished, check averages jumped by $5 or $6. People say to me that before they saw it like a local Penn place. Now, after the renovation, they feel like it's more of a destination. Business people tell me that all the time.

What makes Marty Grims restaurants different from other restaurants?

It's about the team. You'll see that I never branded anything "Marty Grims Restaurants." Our restaurants are individual artistic statements that have to stand on their own. It's me not being out front and center; it's me being behind the scenes. There are lots of people who've been with me for 20 years. For me, it was never fun doing it by myself.

I don't think a restaurateur can go home on any given day and say "it was a perfect evening." It’s always a struggle, there’s always something to fix. It took us six years to get the White Dog to where it's on top of its game again. We took this restaurant that was sort of declining and, some would say, its best years were behind it - and now the sales are the best they've ever been, in 33 years.

White Dog Cafe

University City: 3420 Sansom St., 215-386-9224
Wayne: 200 W. Lancaster Ave., 610-225-3700
Haverford: 379 Lancaster Ave., 610-896-4556