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The first Recovery Café for people recovering from addiction and other mental health issues started in Seattle, Washington nearly twenty years ago. In the UK, The Brink, Liverpool is said to be the first Recovery Café to open in 2011. Today, both locations are still thriving. However, the recovery café movement seems to have stalled in recent years, although the need for such places has never been greater. In the UK, some cafés have closed altogether, and alternative models are being tried. The reasons for this are not hard to find. In this article, we look at the situation and what could be done.
A Safe Place to Meet and Socialise
Most people agree today that successful recovery is all about reconnection and integration with others: when that happens, people can gain support and empowerment from each other. The idea of recovery cafés is, therefore a good one. Non-profit organisations or community groups usually run these cafés and rely on donations and volunteer support. People like them for several reasons:
- They offer a sense of community and belonging to those who may feel isolated or disconnected due to their addiction or mental health issues.
- They provide a safe space where people can connect with others who are going through similar experiences, share their stories and support each other.
- They can offer a range of activities and services that can help people in their recovery journey. These include group meetings, therapy sessions, mindfulness and meditation classes, yoga, art and music therapy, and workshops on topics such as nutrition, financial management, and employment skills. These activities can help people develop new skills, build confidence, and improve their mental and physical well-being.
- They are often run by people who have been through addiction or mental health issues themselves and can provide a unique perspective on the recovery journey. These people can offer support, guidance, and understanding to those seeking help and can act as role models for those in recovery.
Support Rather than Therapy
Despite the many benefits of recovery cafés, it is important to note that they are not a substitute for professional treatment or therapy. Recovery cafés are important because they can provide support and guidance, but they should not be seen as a replacement for medical or psychological care.
At the Heart of Recovery
Recovery cafés are at the heart of recovery – after all, two people meeting (perhaps over a cup of coffee), in Akron, Ohio in 1935 was how Alcoholics Anonymous started. There is an obvious need for vulnerable people of all kinds, including those struggling with addiction and its consequences, to be able to meet and interact in places that are removed from the pressures found in ordinary venues where the normal socialising and drinking habits of the general public can seem quite threatening and judgmental.
In response to the pandemic, some recovery cafés adapted their services to offer online support, including virtual group meetings and therapy sessions. This allowed people to continue to receive the support they needed but did not help their finances. Just as in the catering sector as a whole, several were forced to close altogether.
History of Recovery Cafés
On 26th March 2015 London’s Evening Standard ran a story about a new Recovery Café opened in Hoxton, East London by Comedian, Author, and all-around recovery personality Russell Brand. ‘Huge crowds turn up as Russell Brand opens café run by recovering drug addicts’ was the headline. Almost exactly eight years later, the Trew Era Café, as it was called is just a memory – it has been closed since 2020. In Edinburgh, the much-loved Serenity Café that opened to hopeful fanfare in 2011 has gone the same way – it was forced to close in 2018.
Attempts to establish café premises with similar aims in Birmingham and Manchester seem to have been even more short-lived. One example of continuing success seems to be in Liverpool where the famous Brink has been running since 2011 when it opened as: ‘the UK’s first-ever “dry-bar” – a safe space, a life-changing place – a recovery space.’ It is flourishing today but even so, they were forced to close for a period in 2020.
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Why Are Recovery Cafés in the UK Struggling?
Recovery cafés in the UK, like many other businesses, have faced significant challenges in the past few years, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some possible reasons why recovery cafés in the UK are struggling:
- Lack of Funding: recovery cafés are typically not-for-profit organisations and rely on funding and grants to operate. The ongoing economic uncertainty and budget cuts to local councils have impacted the availability of funding, making it difficult for these cafés to sustain their operations. Councils have difficult choices to make and funding cafés rather than say, schools or care homes, can seem less important.
- COVID-19 Pandemic: the pandemic has hit the hospitality industry hard, including recovery cafés. Many successful catering businesses have suffered, and recovery cafés often operate close to the financial margin. Many had to close temporarily during lockdowns, leading to a loss of revenue. Social distancing measures also meant that they had to reduce their capacity, which further impacted their ability to generate income.
- Limited Public Awareness: recovery cafés offer a safe and supportive environment for people in recovery to socialise and access resources. However, many people remain unaware of the services offered by these cafés which usually lack the money or means to self-publicise on a large scale, limiting their ability to attract new customers.
- Staffing Issues: recovery cafés rely heavily on volunteers to support their operations, but finding and retaining volunteers can be challenging, and many cafés struggle with staffing issues, which can impact their ability to provide a consistent and high-quality service.
- Stigma: despite progress in recent years, there is still a stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues. This stigma may deter some people from accessing recovery cafés, leading to a limited customer base and reduced revenue.
- Limited Business Expertise: like many small businesses, running a successful catering establishment is not easy – it requires a huge commitment, long hours, and special entrepreneurial flair. Goodwill, enthusiasm, and high ideals may be admirable qualities but may not be best suited to keeping a business afloat during challenging times.
Overall, the combination of these factors has made it challenging for recovery cafés in the UK to thrive. However, with continued support and awareness, these cafés can continue to provide essential services for people in recovery.
How Could Recovery Cafés Be More Successful?
It can sometimes seem easy for outsiders to provide helpful suggestions for the improvement of a business whereas, in reality, the management may be struggling with all kinds of issues such as limited manpower, that make implementation almost impossible. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts, gleaned from press comments and the recovery community at large:
- Optimise social media use: social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are powerful tools for promoting businesses. Recovery cafés can use these platforms to build and expand a target audience through sharing success stories, promoting events, and generally creating a following.
- Focus on the customer: prioritise providing a positive customer experience. This includes creating a bright, clean, and efficient environment, offering quality food and beverages, and providing good customer service (a minimal or confusing welcome for example, can deter people from coming back). By providing a positive experience, customers are more likely to return and recommend the café to others.
- Develop a marketing plan: creating a simple marketing plan that outlines goals, target audience, and strategies for reaching them gives people something to work towards and a sense of purpose. A good plan helps to identify the most effective marketing channels and allocate resources accordingly.
- Train staff: staff should be well-trained in communication and customer service (a slow and inefficient barista, for example, can be off-putting, no matter how cheerful they may be). They should be helpful and knowledgeable about addiction and recovery, as well as local resources and services. This would enable them to provide an overall better experience to customers.
- Expand the range of services: recovery cafes can develop a sense of community by offering more services beyond just serving food and beverages. They can offer counselling, peer support, workshops, and training as well as social activities. By doing this, they can become a hub for the recovery community and thus attract more people.
- Build relationships with other organisations: recovery cafés can work with other organisations in the community to promote their services and increase their reach. They can partner with local government agencies, non-profit organisations, and healthcare providers to develop referral programs and increase awareness of their services.
Are There Alternative Business Models for Recovery Cafés?
There are alternatives that are starting to be seen, largely as a response to actual likely cuts in funding by government, local councils, and other sources:
- The most common alternative seems to be a type of ‘pop-up’ café, perhaps open for a few hours on some evenings, or on certain days of the week. This considerably reduces the overhead cost of owning or renting permanent premises with all the running expenses attached. Typically, this might be a joint enterprise between a local authority and NHS mental health services to use existing premises for people in recovery and/or in crisis, at certain key times such as weekends or evenings. The South West London Recovery Café is one example and the City of York runs a recovery café on NHS premises at certain times.
- Another way of promoting the recovery café idea is to provide coffee bars inside existing charity shops. Here again, this avoids the heavy costs of dedicated catering premises. The charity Crisis runs coffee bars in four of its London shops.
- Alcohol-free pubs: perhaps closest to the Recovery Café idea in the everyday world is the alcohol-free pub, a fairly new phenomenon that has arisen in response to the growth in sales of alcohol-free beers and wines. The Sunday Times recently featured the Lucky Saint, an alcohol-free pub in Marylebone. Such premises do not promote recovery, merely the idea of healthy living but they may appeal to those in established sobriety who want to meet in a safe venue that is closer in style to mainstream licensed premises (although the usual caveats concerning triggers and euphoric recall would apply to those doing so).
Recovery Cafés Are Important
Recovery cafés in the UK are still a popular idea though their numbers have dwindled, and their format seems to be changing. They continue to play an important role in supporting people in recovery. They offer a safe and supportive environment where people can connect with others, learn new skills, and develop a general sense of purpose and empowerment. They may perhaps need to improve and adapt but they are as relevant today as they have ever been. At Castle Craig Group we encourage all our clients to use recovery cafés wherever possible.
If you are worried about any aspect of addiction for yourself or someone close to you, please don’t hesitate to give us a call at 0808 271 7500, we are always glad to listen and discuss your best options for recovery.