The Rise of the Anti-Cafe
If you’re not looking for Ziferblat, you might miss the place entirely. The cafe is stowed away in an unassuming building on Tverskaya Street in downtown Moscow. In order to gain access to the whimsical salon, a maze of wallpapered rooms furnished with wicker chairs, you have to buzz in and walk up a cold staircase. The only thing assuring potential visitors that they’re in the right place is the distant smell of espresso. Ziferblat—named for the Russian word for “clock-face”—has no menu, just a counter with a row of clocks and two cheery volunteer baristas tending to a simple bar.
Once you check in, your consumption of coffee, tea, pastries and cookies is limited only by the clock. At Ziferblat, like at other “anti-cafes,” you aren’t paying for the food or drink—you pay for the time you’re there. Ziferblat, which was launched in the fall of 2011, was the first of a growing number of anti-cafes in Eastern Europe that combined a pay-by-the-minute model with a clubhouse like vibe of board games, meeting rooms, and unlimited coffee.
Ivan Mitin, a writer and entrepreneur, launched Ziferblat out of a desire to turn "Treehouse," a communal art space frequented by him and his friends, into a self-sustaining business. In order to keep operating and pay rent, Mitin knew he needed to raise money. But he wanted to keep a sense of a public space that felt communal and collaborative, not like another "Coffee House" or "Shokoladnitsa" full of apathetic clientele and Western prices.
Visitors of Moscow locations now pay around roughly 180 rubles an hour to stay at the anti-cafe, with the expense capping at 540 (or less than $9) for a day. Compare that to a Russian Starbucks, where even a medium sized drip-coffee can run nearly $5, and you’ll start to see what makes the model so financially attractive.
Visitors of Ziferblat don’t patronize the shop simply for endless coffee and pastries; they pay to be a part of something, even if that means serving themselves. The patrons of Ziferblat are a generation that grew up under the prosperity of the early 2000s in Russia, only to see increasingly authoritarian politics and a quickly sinking economy by 2010. Spaces like Ziferblat allowed them to take their increasingdiscontent from social media platforms to a physical space. Instead of Twitter and VKontakte (Russia's Facebook), they had a physical place of board games, activism, and business.
Much more important than coffee itself (which is still considered secondary to tea by most Russians), coffee shops have long been gathering places for Russia’s conflicted 20-somethings. In the 1960s, the same socialization that used to occur within spaces organized around political interests or state institutions transferred to a growing number of “cafes,” a movement made possible under Khruschev’s loosening restrictions. Late socialism was full of spaces that existed on the edge of state restrictions, and cafes were no exception.
The phenomena, labeled “The Great Coffee Revolution” by poet Viktor Krivulin, put a few, often nameless cafes at the very forefront of a rapidly changing Soviet identity. While the cafes of the 1960s were a bit more rooted in hard intellectual discourse (the most popular was nicknamed Saigon as a critical wink to protest against American war in Vietnam) than the sometimes whimsical anti-cafes today, both the cafes of the “Great Revolution” and anti-cafes of modern Russia provided a space of respite and openness for young intellectuals feeling the push and pull of a country that is still often at odds with itself culturally and politically.
During my time studying in Moscow I used Ziferblat as my own little haven away from my dreary Soviet-style apartment far off the Garden Ring. I wandered between the cozy, rooms studying, meeting with friends, and enjoying too many jam cookies and Americanos. As Mitin intended in his original mission, the cafe served as respite from a “home” I did not quite always understand or always feel a part of—and that very certainly did not offer anything in the way of coffee beyond instant powder. I often miss Ziferblat when I bunker down in my Brooklyn coffee shop to do work, surrounded by other 20-somethings furiously typing and clicking. While I've tried New York's newest take on an anti-cafe, it didn't feel the same. Ziferblat is as irreplaceable as it is timeless.