"Nutters and revolutionaries especially welcome,” proclaimed Russell Brand on the March morning when he opened the Trew Era Café, his coffee shop on the New Era estate in Hackney.
The 25-seat space was overflowing with journalists, Brand's fans, and supporters of the campaign he had led to save the estate from being sold to developers who wanted to evict over 100 families and double the rent.
With defiant passion, Brand told the crowd: "We’ll start more and more of these social enterprises. Eventually, we will trade with one another in our own currency. We’re going to create our own systems, our own federations, our own currencies, our own authorities.”
Four months later, the media attention has died down, but Trew Era - named after the comedian and author's YouTube show The Trews, and funded by the profits from his latest book, Revolution - is still busy.
Seven former drug addicts staff the café, which is run as a social enterprise. They are in abstinence-based recovery, the method Brand himself uses to control his own heroin addiction.
After being clean for 12 years, Brand is strongly against drug replacement therapy using substances like methadone and has argued that “if we regard alcoholics and drug addicts not as bad people but as sick people, then we can help them to get better.”
The café's courtyard
Dave, 45, has worked at Trew Era since that day in March. He took up drugs after getting into the rave scene in the 80s, having left the Royal Marines. "I went to my first party when I was very young, and BAM! I never looked back: that became my life for 25 years.”
"I was on all the party drugs. Everything. My nickname was Dyson, so you can imagine, or Duracell Dave. I was a functioning addict, I worked in the party scene for many years."
He started off as a small-time drug dealer, "just because I could get pills for my friends and that," he tells The Huffington Post UK. He ended up travelling the world, DJing and investing in sound systems. "We did clubs, parties festivals and all over the world and had the life of Riley.”
"Near the end I started going towards the harder drugs: cocaine, crack," Dave says. "I even had a period of heroin addiction, just from wanting to try something different. And that was when I found it difficult to stop because it’s much harder to stop that kind of stuff. I tried to retire when I was 40 but I couldn’t because it’s a way of life, you know?"
Dave repeatedly tried to leave the music scene but struggled to keep a regular job while he was still using. "I just couldn’t hold down anything, couldn’t do the 9-5. I had a background in marketing and sales before I got into the rave scene, so people would always take me on but then of course I’d be sacked within weeks because I just didn’t take it too seriously.”
After going through several relapses, he has now been clean for two years. He met Brand at rehab meetings, which the comedian still attends. It's fair to say Dave is unfazed by Brand's fame: “Yeah, he's an alright chap, do you know what I mean? I’m pretty neutral. I was in Shoreditch meetings, and he used to pop in. He’s just calm, collected, all that sort of thing. He’s very into his recovery and his transidental meditation and all that stuff.
"I’m not one of these people who will talk to somebody because they are a celebrity, I couldn’t care less.
"And then when you meet him at the café, he’s a busy, busy guy, isn’t he? He’s always surrounded by people, poor guy, so I feel sorry for him I that sense. But then, he asks for it, do you know what I mean? So that’s the way it is."
Brand with Lindsay Garrett, Lynsay Spiteri and Danielle Molinari who campaigned to stop evictions on the New Era Estate
"Idon’t have an issue with him, but lots of people do: you either love him or hate him, Russell," says Dave. "There’s a lot of people that like him around here because obviously he’s helped, that was one of his campaigns to help this area.”
Like some of the other café workers, Dave was referred to Trew Era from Paper and Cup, a chain of two other London rehab cafés. It was serving coffee that finally helped him to stay clean: "Finally getting regular hours – I’d never done that," he admits.
After honing his barista skills, and taking a trip back to rehab, Dave got clean and was put forward to help start Trew Era.
He recalls a meeting with Brand early on: "He sat us all down, at the beginning, and asked us where we were in our recovery. He said that's vital."
All of the addicts have to be in the 12-step recovery cycle to work at Trew Era. They are paid the London living wage of £9.15 an hour, whereas those coming from Paper and Cup work mainly on a voluntary basis, as the programme is only for people on benefits.
Dave initially thought he would only help Trew Era for a short time, thanks to his previous coffee shop experience. "I was quite happy just to help out and then walk away. But I’ve kept with it." He has other projects on the go: "I belong to a digital collective that does social media and stuff, but I might hang around, it’s a nice place and nice vibe.”
Brand is still very hands-on with the café, which serves food and coffee in the day and offers itself as a space for Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the evening. Some of the staff go to the meetings, but it's not obligatory, as long as they attend sessions somewhere.
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The association with Brand that drew people to the café in its early days has waned, leaving an eclectic clientele. "You get all sorts," says Dave. "Initially, we had that kind of Russell Brand, you know... he gets all sorts, shall we say, diplomatically. That’s dwindled now, it’s kind of calmed down a bit. Because the pricing's good and stuff, the locals pop in, because the staff are all pretty friendly, and so are the customers.
"Because of Russell's input in saving he estate from developers, it’s kind of quite intrinsic."
Rose Chorlton, 28, is the cafe manager and only person who's not a recovering addict on the team. She has a background in catering and doesn't find Trew Era's staff particularly different from other teams she's had. "I think it’s just they’re vulnerable people that we’ve got here, and all in different stages of recovery, so it’s just being aware of what’s going on," she says.
Money could be a trigger to relapse for some, she explains. "Because we’re paying London living wage, we have to be sure that that’s not going to be a trigger, having that amount of money available. And making sure they’ve got all the support that they need and that they know where to go for it.
"But they are all quite self-contained, and they know what they are doing with their recovery. It’s nice for them to have a place where they feel totally comfortable in expressing their feelings.”
“Some of them are at six months, other are 12 years clean," she says. "People who are 12 years down the line are a lot more stable in their recovery, which is great for the other staff: it’s like a sort of mentoring system.”
Lynsay and Lois, who live on the estate, with their banana and blueberry cheesecake
The backgrounds of the staff means they naturally look out for each other, Dave says: “Obviously that can be an issue for some people, because some are better some are more organised, and some are worse, whatever. Some people are pretty new and some people have been [clean] a while, but I don’t think there’s anybody really just started off, do you know what I mean? As far as I can see most people have been clean a year or two.
"And it will be interesting to see, between you and me, what happens if somebody has a bad time and relapses. No-one has that I know of, and obviously it’s not my business but we’re all quite close on the team and we’d probably know.
Another team member, who knows Russell well, Ellie, acts as his "recovery contact" and will fill him in on any problems or difficulties team members are having.
Though the crowds are smaller, there's still a "nice community buzz" around the cafe day-to-day, says Chorlton. It's always busy after one o'clock, and Brand and his friends and family are still regulars: "He’s always popping in and holding his press things here. A lot of the staff know him anyway from meetings, of course, so they are all familiar with him and still see him. Recovery’s a lifetime process,” she smiles. "We had Russell’s dad and his friends sitting in the garden today."
A newsagent near the cafe now also has Brand's 'Trews' branding
The café's notoriety has encouraged different groups from the area to socialise, Chorlton says, with young professionals from hip Shoreditch nearby mixing with locals from the estate.
The atmosphere is rather revolutionary - something Brand no doubt approves of: "Every’s just seems really happy to talk, even when people have got different ideas. So say a couple were having a talk about the status of the political climate, and someone else disagrees, they will willingly join in and everyone will listen. That’s what everyone feels like they can do here without getting shouted down or ridiculed for their ideas."
The menu also conforms to Brand's tastes: all organic, vegetarian or vegan, with good quality coffee. The food offering as evolved from a few comforting toasties to include 'super salads' and daily specials made by the residents of the New Era estate, who come to the café after hours to cook their own recipes to be served the next day.
“We provide all of the ingredients so it stays organic, they provide the recipe that they need, then we make sure that we’ve got all the ingredients for them,” says Chorlton. "At the moment there’s the vegan chilli, made by a lady called Michelle, that’s really, really popular. That always goes within a couple of hours." Those who went to the launch events are still talking about the homemade cheesecake from Lindsey Garrett, a leader of the NewEra4All campaign to save the estate.
A Trew Era Cafe daily special: avocado on toast with scrambled eggs and salad
The coffee is good value: £1.80 for what Dave calls “the milky version” - latte, cappuccino or similar - and £1.60 for an Americano. If a customer wants add-ons like a syrup, it's free. "Normally everything’s charged at other places, which is understandable because they have to make their profit and that," Dave remarks. "But they are pretty chilled about this to the extent that I even say 'Look, come on guys, even if you want to break even you’re going to have to start charing for some of these things.' But if that's what they want, then you go with the flow."
The cafe has so far made at least £2,000 in profit, Chorlton estimates. Brand said at the launch that it would be “fully self-supporting,” but for now his money is essential. "He’s the main backer for it so he’s funding the café and also the projects which don’t quite meet up, he fills in the gaps.”
Aside from some teething problems - the wrong equipment, and some that didn't work - it seems his money has been well-spent. "We started Paper and Cups from nothing as well and that took probably a year before we even got our stuff together," says Dave. "So here it's been much quicker with various people’s input which is good.”
Chorlton has big plans: they hope to soon expand into the building next door, a supermarket which is relocating. Some of the profits have been used to set up chicken coops and beehives for recovering addicts to tend to on a nearby farm, which could move to the enlarged site. The new building will be a hub for recovery programmes and social enterprises.
They haven't quite launched their own currency, or launched their own federations, in line with Brand's dream, but there's momentum for Trew Era to grow much further.
Working with the New Hanbury project which runs the Paper and Cup cafés, it is planning a social enterprise recovery 'stamp mark' to unite a network of businesses that will share the same ethos. "Like a big alliance of ideas," says Chorlton, "because so many people want to set up the same thing.
"I’ve had so many emails saying ‘How can I set this up in Canada or New York?’ but here’s not much information about how, so we’re working at making that much easier so there are these recovery cafés everywhere."
Michele, a local from the estate, creating some salads
For Chorlton, true satisfaction has come from seeing her staff develop: "Even in the first few months, watching confidence levels rising and their own self-worth being built is fantastic. In just two months, you could see the difference, and obviously that makes a big difference to their own personal recovery.”
Exclusively being around other addicts using the abstinence-based approach has been really beneficial, she says, unlike other recovery programmes where people might mix with others using methadone. "It’s kind of a negative environment. They say they’ve found it a lot better as everyone on the same page here."
“There are different recovery paths for everyone, it’s just a way that you get there and it’s the way that Russell feels works best.”
But the change has affected more than just the seven staff working with her - the whole area has benefitted.
"I think the amount of people who have been emailing us, and then popping in and just people offering their support really shows that. Sometimes it's people have been in recovery or have sons in recovery, or even people who are not and who just sympathise with the cause. Everyone’s really behind it.
"We've found that place where everyone’s so open and willing to talk about things, not just brush it under the carpet, that’s why it’s integral to have integration. This whole place is about getting people talking and being a support structure, and it's brilliant.”
Writing of his own attraction to drugs, Brand has said his home borough of Hackney sometimes seems “like part of the problem”. But it seems that his café is quite the opposite.
When Trew Era launched, the Daily Mirror ran a wry poll asking “Does caffeine aid revolution?”
It seems like, in some small way, perhaps it does.
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