Correction: Due to an editing error, this story should have said Biggby Founder and CEO Bob Fish contacted Dennis Preston, not the other way around. Also due to an editing error, the majority of Preston’s freelance work listed was done after high school, not during. Due to a reporting error, the story should have said that Preston knows of three Lansing Biggby locations where his artwork has come down, not six.
One of Dennis Preston’s favorite places to conjure up grotesque and whimsical characters was the Biggby Coffee at 536 Elmwood Road in Lansing, just south of the Lansing Mall. The local illustrator, designer and caricaturist would draw on coffee napkins and leave them at the store, which could then be “purchased” by giving $10 to the barista on duty. It was a tradition that had been going on throughout Lansing-area Biggby’s for the past 10 years.
But earlier this month, Preston was surprised to find the Biggby at 1701 S. Waverly Road, Lansing, had removed all of his napkin doodles from their regular spot on the community bulletin board. The employees thought he had been informed about the decision. Since May 5, dozens more of Preston’s drawings have been taken down from three Biggby shops around the city.
Company founder and CEO Bob Fish said there are operating procedures for all of the Biggby locations. That includes what can be included in the decor.
“Biggby has never been a gallery for local art,” Fish said. He said Preston’s art wasn’t taken down because a specific policy, but because of a conversation about decor enforcement that had trickled down from a franchisee meeting to management.
He said the removal of Preston’s work at Lansing Biggby locations was a decision that was made by management. All of Biggbys 142 locations in the state and around the country are franchisee owned. There are about 25 of them in the Greater Lansing area.
Preston started drawing on napkins at Biggby as a tip for the baristas. Average napkin doodle completion time? About 30 minutes. When customers began swiping them, he started putting a disclaimer at the bottom with that $10 tipping rule. He’d also leave his business card by the drawings, which drummed up some work for him.
“I thought of it as a win-win-win,” Preston said. “If somebody wanted a napkin, they got that. The barista got the tip and I would get work.”
A Lansing native and graduate of Eastern High School, Preston has been an instructor of “humorous illustration and cartoon workshops” at Lansing Community College since 1977. After high school, he started to do freelance work designing T-shirts, album covers and logos for various organizations and people. He would also be hired to go to parties and — what else — draw caricatures.
For the Elmwood cafe’s manager, Paul Anderson, the removal of the napkins is a loss to the franchise.
“They were part of the Biggby culture,” he said. “I think they could’ve kept them. They were harmless; they brought attention to the store and helped us get tips every so often. But I think the company wanted to go in a different direction.”
Soon after Preston realized his napkins had disappeared, Fish reached out to Preston. Fish had also been receiving angry Facebook messages from people demanding answers. For his part, Fish said he feels bad that Preston was caught off guard.
“If there’s something that was inappropriate in this moment, it is that Dennis had to walk in and see his napkins were gone,” Fish said. “No one knew what was going on. The baristas didn’t know. No one understood the full thread of what was going on, and it just seemed rude.”
But the rule is being upheld; the napkins really are gone forever. And how does Preston feel about that?
“I told Bob I’m just thankful that they’ve been up this long — this is your business, you guys run it the way you want to,” Preston said. “I don’t have any problem with that. I don’t have any bad feeling toward Bob. I don’t have bad feelings towards Biggby.”
However, Preston doesn’t have any thoughts about reviving the napkin doodle tradition at a new caf anytime soon.
“I felt like it was an era that ended,” Preston said. “It’s like when someones spouse dies. They don’t run right out and get married again. I’m just gonna back away from it for awhile.”