The latest branch of Ziferblat, a chain of Russian “anti-cafés” has just opened in London and it’s introducing the concept of “free spaces” to Europe. This uniquely Russian approach to the coffee shop charges customers by the minute, but includes tea, coffee, biscuits and Wi-Fi in the price. In fact, Ziferblat doesn’t like to call this fee a charge, but rather a “donation towards the further development” of the social experiment.
The word “customers” is also something that Ziferblat avoids. Rather, they host “guests” who become micro-tenants of the space, both “responsible for it and able to influence its life.”
Armed with Zieferblat’s address, slap bang in the center of Shoreditch, I set out to see this new paradigm in communal experience for myself. On reaching my destination I was presented with a friendly window display that was in stark contrast to the passive aggressive bell I had to ring to be buzzed upstairs. I imagine this is the sort of thing that makes a certain type of Shoreditch resident go weak at the knees.
It began to dawn on me why I have to pay the monkeys at Starbucks so much to do this for me.
On ascending the stairs I was welcomed by a smartly dressed gentleman called Tom. Decked out in a green woollen vest top that complemented his green trousers that in turn complemented his olive shoes, he immediately put me at ease with his relaxed manner and offered to give me the tour. On entering I was presented with an oversized living room quietly buzzing with a forest of Macbook Airs.
“It’s a communal space” started Tom, “We will have events: live music, film nights, that sort of thing. You can bring your own food and there’s free tea, coffee, biscuits and bread to make sandwiches in the kitchen.”
“It’s usually going to cost 3p a minute, but because it’s still the Christmas period you can just make a donation on the way out” he said, gesturing towards a vintage brown leather suitcase lying open next to the entrance.
“Let me show you the kitchen,” he continued as he guided me across the room. I was presented with a shabby but clean kitchen, bedecked with a glistening new espresso machine.
“Would you like me to show you how to make coffee?” Tom continued. I accepted his offer and we got to work grinding some beans. As I laboured over the knobs and levers it began to dawn on me why I have to pay the monkeys at Starbucks so much to do this for me.
“Where did you hear about us?” Tom asked as I got to grips with something called a coffee tamper. “Um, someone shared an article about you on Facebook” I admitted. “I loved the concept and just had to check you out.”
Latte complete, Tom directed me to the last remaining free table and left me to my own devices.
I fired up my laptop, connected to the free Wi-Fi and sat back to observe the room: a collection of mismatched chairs and tables, interspersed with carefully-selected vintage curiosities, all arranged over the bare wooden floor. There’s often an odd paradox where the harder you try to make something look like it was thrown together, the more contrived it looks. I couldn’t say that Ziferblat was blameless in this regard, but the composition of the room was nothing if not pleasant.
Ziferblat founder Ivan Mitin plays a vintage piano
Looking around, there was an expected mix of graphic designers and creative thinkers deep in caffeine-fuelled thought at their computers. A sprinkling of bespectacled bookworms made up the rest of the room. Beards, knitted jumpers and checked shirts were not in short supply.
I settled into my coffee, which was delicious, and eavesdropped on those sitting nearby – the law graduates at the next table who were reading “Freedom of religion, minorities and the law” and the two men who joined my table who began to discuss the merits of craft beer from Falmouth.
As the dulcet tones of Aloe Blacc gave way to Duke Ellington’s 1937 hit “Caravan” over the speakers, I sat back and soaked up the atmosphere. After a while, I started to have an odd feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The whole setup might very well be overly contrived, but I felt relaxed, hidden away in my corner and safe from the gaze of a waitress waiting for me to move so they can wipe down my table. I could have sat there all day without being bothered.
After a couple of hours it was time to leave. I washed up my cup, swiped a bourbon cream from the kitchen and tossed the cost of a Starbucks Latte into the artisanal suitcase on the way out. On balance, I think I got better value for money.