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Inside Ziferblat, London's Pay-As-You-Go Cafe

January 16, 2014

londonScott Campbell, The Daily Telegraph, January 16, 2014

It’s 8.30pm on a Monday evening and I have just walked into a stranger’s living room. It wasn’t very difficult – after buzzing my way in to the apartment block and walking up two flights of stairs, I just strolled straight through the open door. More oddly, the stranger is now shaking my hand and introducing me to other intruders, even inviting me to use the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, or play the piano.

This is Ziferblat, a newly-opened café in Shoreditch . The concept? "Everything is free, except the time you spend there". Visitors pay three pence per minute for a seemingly unlimited supply of tea, coffee and toast. It is the first UK outpost of a small chain that has ten branches in Russia, and one in Ukraine. It has received rave reviews: Time Out has already called it the "opening of the year".

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The timing system isn’t in operation yet. But an old suitcase is left open by the door for donations; it’s full of notes and coins. Like every café, Ziferblat has a cappuccino machine, all sorts of different teas, and staff who know a heck of a lot about coffee. But you won’t find the workers here rushing out espresso orders with names hastily written on the side of insulated paper cups. Instead, customers use the kitchen facilities to make their own drinks and clean up the dishes afterwards.

It’s a beverage buffet like no other, and founder Ivan Mitin, 29, says that they are already seeing regulars.

For those who fancy a bit more to eat than a couple of biscuits or a slice of toast, the kitchen has a microwave and visitors are encouraged to bring their own food. Hiding among the boxes of tea are powdered soup sachets and cereal for hungrier customers. In the cupboards below the counter there are even bags of potatoes and other vegetables, ready to be chopped and eaten as crudités by the afternoon crowd.

The emphasis in Ziferblat – "clock face" in English – is on spending quality time, and it seems to be a recurring theme. There are clocks everywhere and "take your time" is written beside the Wi-Fi code. Then again, when time is quite literally money, encouraging customers to stay for as long as possible is perhaps to be expected.

The owners call it a "social space", and upon entering it really feels like you have intruded on a slightly awkward house party. But it’s a pleasant feeling. A group of Russians have congregated at one side of the room, laughing raucously as they drink cups of tea and share stories. A woman sits alone in the corner, texting, but not for long: another customer, whom she has presumably never met before, quickly greets her with a handshake.

There is an unusual atmosphere in the kitchen as strangers wash each others’ dishes and share one kettle, but people are generally helpful. One man, after being taught how to use the cappuccino machine, spent three hours teaching others how to do the same.

As for the décor, the furniture is vintage and the whole place feels like it has been sourced from a secondhand market.

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Ziferblat is not overly busy during my visit – there are plenty of seats and tables left. One staff member says that the space is like an office during the day, filled with freelancers typing rapidly. It has been so busy at points that they have had to turn people away.

Ivan, the mustachioed founder, walks in and perches against a table. After a quiet Christmas with just a few customers, he looks exhausted: A spike in media interest has led to a sudden influx of customers. A Bloomberg microphone still sits on the front desk. Ivan tells me that he barely has the energy to get to his bed after Ziferblat closes at midnight, but he is finally taking a holiday by leaving at 9pm. He really is dedicated to the idea.

All in all, in the two hours I was there, I had a lemon and ginger tea, two English breakfast teas and a couple of slices of toast for £3.60 (although I made a £5 donation). The equivalent cost in Starbucks? Just under £10.

But will it catch on? Following this London opening, co-founder Tom Kramin says that they plan another in New York. It’s hard to get a good cup of coffee for under £3 in London, let alone as many as you care to consume for £1.80 an hour. But that’s not the point. Ziferblat is a haven of quality time away from London’s busy streets, and a place to meet new people. The question is: will it attract enough customers to stay in Shoreditch? Only time will tell.

Ziferblat, 388 Old Street, EC1V; 10am-midnight daily.

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