Nestled away in the small brewery town of Burton-Upon-Trent in the Midlands, Langan's is a traditional, formal-but-friendly tearoom with a difference. At first glance, it has the upmarket British town, vaguely Downton Abbey-esque characteristics you'd expect—all corniced ceilings and gleaming, polished floorboards.
The difference with Langan's, though, is that beneath the meticulously-painted walls and ornate furnishings, all its staff and volunteers are in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse.
Launched by Noreen Oliver, a former alcoholic, and connected to the treatment center she runs, BAC O' Connor, Langan's Tea Rooms offers paid and voluntary work to ex-users who have received treatment at the center.
Noreen's battle with alcoholism brought her close to death. Since getting into recovery, though, she's devoted herself to helping others with addiction problems. "All the people who work here have been through BAC, and when they leave they will have an NVQ—something to fill the gaps on their CV with," she says.
The tearooms have been embraced wholeheartedly by local communities, and celebrities like Russell Brand—a massive public supporter of schemes that promote abstinence-based recovery in the UK—have visited the tearooms on a number of occasions. This has helped, obviously, in removing the stigma that is associated with addiction. We all have pre-conceived notions of what an addict might look like or be capable of.
Often—very often—that notion is wrong.
Noreen might have taken a chance with the recovering-addicts-staffing-a-posh-tea-room business template, but her experiment appears to be working brilliantly. I went up to visit on a Monday when you'd expect it to be pretty quiet, being an upmarket in a small town and all that. Not so. Tables were full of customers getting their fill of homemade cakes and little sandwiches. All this, Noreen believes, has helped instill a sense of pride in the team running the place. "We wanted this beautiful building to be a place people can be proud of," she says.
The immaculate kitchens are run by chef Nick who, when I met him, was whisking up a can of R. White's Lemonade. This was puzzling.
"It's for the fish batter," he grinned. "Obviously we can't use beer."
Obviously. Idiot (me).
"It's a great alternative, though. It's nice and frothy, so it still makes a good batter."
Nick has a long history of alcohol abuse but has completely turned his life around. He firmly believes that his transformation wouldn't have been possible without the help and support network that he found at Langan's. "Not only am I working with [other] recovering addicts here," he says, "but I also feel safe and confident. It does wonders for the self-esteem—all things that are required for healthy living, really."
The manager of the tearooms, Natalie, has been working here for nearly three years, having started as a volunteer after graduating from BAC O'Connor. In her early teens, Natalie began using drugs recreationally. Later, she progressed to heroin. Coming to Langan's helped her work out what to do with her life after completing her drug treatment.
"When I left rehab, I didn't know what I wanted to do," she says. "I had a gap on my CV of about seven years and a criminal record. When I first came here all I wanted to do was wash pots and pans. My confidence was so low, but I stuck at it." Natalie went on to explain a sentiment echoed by all her colleagues—how having fellow ex-users around means she's far less likely to relapse.
Their priority is to help each other stay clean.
"Without this place and the friends I've made in recovery, I think I would have relapsed," she says, matter-of-factly. "If I'm having an off day, I'm probably the last person to know, but somebody else will say, 'Are you okay?' and actually mean it. These guys can tell if there's something else going on. We're a bit like a family."
There are, of course, recovery cafes all over the country, but, although run by addicts, their customers are almost always recovering addicts, too. Noreen's philosophy is to take those in recovery—often with years of horrendous, hand-to-mouth street living behind them—and help them integrate again with the community.
Here, recovering addicts have a chance to learn, or rediscover, skills. Most important of all, though, is that they have an opportunity to gain respect—both that of the non-addicts they serve every day, and for themselves.