We’ve all been there. You buy a coffee and drink it as slowly as you can just so you can linger in a cafe for as long as possible. Well, no more. Ivan Mitin, an author-turned-entrepreneur from Moscow, has chosen the British capital as the location for the newest branch of Ziferblat, a chain of Russian “anti-cafes”. The concept behind Ziferblat, which means clock face in Russian, is that customers pay for their time rather than their tea. In exchange everything else, from unlimited coffee and biscuits to Wifi, is included in the price.
The innovative pricing model means that customers pay just 3p a minute to hang out at the cafe, with a maximum payment of £9, to stay as long as they like — a bargain compared to most other co-working spaces in the capital. On the lower end of the scale there’s Google Campus in Old Street, offering free Wifi and a paid-for cafe, while the cheapest membership at Impact Hub, which has branches across London, is £90 for 30 hours a month with coffee and tea paid for separately.
Ziferblat’s pay-as-you-go attitude is just one element of Mitin’s overall vision to create “free spaces” (he prefers this term to "anti-cafe") that foster conversation and creativity among strangers — no small feat in London. The idea, says Mitin, was born out of a somewhat utopian dream. “I wanted to create a place where people could, above all, be open with each other. Without alcohol and without the commotion of a nightclub.”
"I wanted to create a place where people could, above all, be open with each other. Without alcohol and without the commotion of a nightclub”
To this end, Mitin has filled an airy first-floor space in the heart of Shoreditch in east London with eclectic furniture, an antique piano, vintage knick-knacks and a carefully curated selection of books, all aimed at creating the right atmosphere for intellectual discussions, creative tête-à-têtes and jam sessions. Or, as Mitin puts it, for relaxing and “becoming yourself”.
While this format of free-form collective entertainment is something of a novelty in London, in Russia anti-cafes have been a major feature of metropolitan life for some time now. Mitin’s nine Russian branches of Ziferblat welcome around 30,000 people through their doors each month. What’s more, Ziferblat is only one of dozens of anti-cafes that have colonised the streets of Moscow, St Petersburg and other post-Soviet cities in the last couple of years. Mitin’s concept is much more than just a new business niche: it’s the arrival of a whole new social phenomenon.
The Moscow branch of Ziferblat opened on Pokrovka street in 2011 and was the first of its kind in Russia. Mitin’s “free spaces” do away with the usual hierarchy between client and customer, meaning that patrons can create their own little world as long as it conforms to Ziferblat’s customs and rules. You can bring your own food and drink — the London branch will offer a blender for smoothies and a microwave for last night’s leftovers — but alcohol is forbidden. Topical films are shown in the space and lectures, jam sessions and poetry readings are hosted.
“We want our visitors to be as involved as possible,” says Mitin. That said, there’s certain level of discernment at Ziferblat that makes it all smack of a secret society. You have to press a buzzer to access the London cafe, which isn’t visible from street level. Although there's a sign in the window, you still kind of have to know that it's there in the first place. And while Mitin stresses that his cafes are open to all, the slogan on Ziferblat’s Facebook page suggests a certain exclusivity: Secret Knowledge. “You’d like to think that the refined taste which we are offering people — evident in the little details such as the music, the books and the friendly atmosphere — is shared by our visitors too,” says Mitin. In Russia, Ziferblat is a favoured haunt of liberal, cosmopolitan young people with an intellectual bent.
According to Mitin, it didn’t take long for the trend for “anti-cafes” to take off. Less than half a year after he opened his first branch a rash of clones began to appear in Moscow and elsewhere. But Mitin is adamant that the only thing they have in common with his project is their pay-as-you-go principle. “These anti-cafes attracted a simple audience with banal freebies,” he says. Instead of high-minded discussions, they offered DVD players and lectures on how to get rich quick. The format proved popular and by Mitin’s count there are now roughly 200 anti-cafes in Russia. But will he be able to repeat his success in London? Mitin explains he chose London over other cities such as Berlin or Paris because it presented a greater challenge. “If we conquer London,” he says, “then we can be confident about opening branches in other parts of the world.”
Given the anonymity of cities such as Moscow, it’s perhaps no surprise that anti-cafes have proven such a hit. Plus, Russian culture is somewhat predisposed to the communal spirit of free spaces. As Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede has suggested, Russian culture is considerably more collectivist than in the Anglo-Saxon world. Russians are keener to feel part of a social group bigger than the family and anti-cafes can help fill this void.
"If we conquer London then we can be confident about opening branches in other parts of the world"
What’s more, places like Ziferblat have precedents in the Soviet Union. “This format of free-and-easy interaction in ‘domesticated’ spaces is very reminiscent of the traditions of the Soviet underground, with its private concerts at house parties in the Seventies and Eighties,” says musicologist Vladimir Orlov. “The Soviet authorities had privatised all forms of cultural interaction: clubs, public lectures, parks, concerts and even dances, so people longed for freedom of expression and unmediated conversation with each other — this was the origin of the so-called kvartirniki [concerts in private apartments].” Today’s free spaces speak to the same urge for freedom.
But for an establishment to be popular it needs to embody more than just a spirit of freedom. Earlier this year, the Russian press reported on a crisis hitting the anti-cafe scene. Despite their popularity, the rise in numbers mean they have lost their sense of individuality. As Anastasia Solominova, manager of Yekaterinburg anti-cafe Friends’ Club, told Oblastnaya Gazeta news website recently, the stiff competition means that these spaces need to find ways to differentiate themselves. “The question about how each of them could be novel came up,” she said. “What is special about each of them? The ones that didn’t find an answer to this question lost their crowd.”
Undeterred by such obstacles, Mitin says he wants to take the Ziferblat concept and turn it into a social movement: several hundred spaces around the whole world with a cosy atmosphere and farm-fresh food paid for by donation — and that’s only the start. “We have lots of different plans,” he says, including a hostel and maybe even a magazine. Considering the popularity of the chain in Russia, and Mitin’s irrepressible energy, it all sounds very possible. Perhaps in this era of total individualism and information, the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity at free spaces is more relevant now than ever. Anyone wishing to give it a go should hurry on down to Shoreditch.