The Alma and St. Louis Biggby Coffee stores are facing backlash following the new owners’, Erin and John Fitzgerald, decision to no longer allow students from Alma Public Schools’ Moderately Cognitively Impaired (MoCI) program to work in their Alma location.
Through this program, which was started by the Gratiot-Isabella Regional Educational Service District (GIRESD) students have had the opportunity to help out at several Gratiot County businesses.
Alma College Assistant Professor/Director of Academic Grants Support, Sheryle Dixon’s daughter is a part of the MoCI program. Dixon has enjoyed seeing Katie and her classmates excel in this program. “My daughter loved doing inventory, which I just find amazing,” said Dixon. “I didn’t know she could do that, but she can.”
Dixon feels that getting the students out in the community is important not only for the students, but for the community as a whole. Over the years, Biggby customers have grown accustomed to seeing the students working at the coffee shop.
“[The students] love being out there with the community, and [people] will tell me ‘Oh, I saw [Katie] at Biggby’ . . . And it’s wonderful.”
“We started about six years ago with a previous owner and she was amazing . . . she just welcomed us with open arms. And the kids loved being there,” said Dixon.
Things changed though, when John and MaryAnne MacIntosh, who brought the popular coffee chain to Alma in 2013, sold the franchise to Erin and John Fitzgerald.
According to Dixon, the Fitzgerald’s told the program staff they could continue to bring the MoCI students to Biggby to work. When the owners decided to move the store into another location, the students’ teacher Maureen Henry reached out to confirm this information.
“[They] called and called and called and [the Fitzgerald’s] wouldn’t respond… So [the staff and students] went,” said Dixon. “[They were] told to leave.”
“And . . . the aids didn’t know what to do other than leave. [Henry] went [into the store] . . . and asked if there had been something that happened or [if] something had gone wrong. [John Fitzgerald] said no, and they just, quote ‘were no longer interested in having the students work there,’” said Dixon.
“[Fitzgerald] also stated that they moved into the [new] building and they wanted a fresh start,” said Dixon. “[Henry] asked if there was a way they could figure something out . . . and once again he said ‘We are no longer interested in having you here.’ I mean, can we talk ableism?”
Dixon is grateful for the outpouring of support from the Gratiot County community. Other local businesses have even reached out with interest in partnering with the program.
While Dixon is happy to see something positive come from the situation, she also knows how much the students enjoyed working at Biggby and realizes that support on social media does not make up for losing that opportunity.
“Most the kids won’t understand this . . . They’ll just know that, today, they can’t go to Biggby though. That’s the sad part,” said Dixon.
The Fitzgerald’s commented on the situation via their Alma Biggby Facebook page, calling the accusations the result of “misunderstandings.”
“. . . We are confused and saddened at the recent stories on social media, and we truly regret any misunderstandings we may have contributed to regarding our support of GIRESD specifically, and individuals with disabilities generally,” said the post.
The post went on to say that the Fitzgerald’s planned to continue their partnership with the MoCI program but had requested a temporary pause.
“About two weeks ago, due to our move to the new location and in order to confirm adequate insurance, should any members of the program get injured while at the store,” said the post. “[We] requested a temporary hold on the program . . .”
“We will not be providing additional responses to specific allegations but wanted to at least address the issue and clarify our position,” said the post.
The Almanian reached out to Biggby Coffee of Alma, but they declined to comment.