Jane Bradley: Time out for old business models

At Ziferblat customers are billed for the amount of time they spend in the venue. Picture: Contributed
At Ziferblat customers are billed for the amount of time they spend in the venue. Picture: Contributed
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Find a table. 3p. Peruse the menu. 9p. Wander to the espresso machine and wait for the queue to dissipate. 27p. The bill is rocketing already and you haven’t even sat down.

Is this a relaxing way to have a coffee? According to the mustacheoed Russian hipsters behind one of Britain’s newest cafe concepts, it is.

At the Ziferblat, which has just opened in London’s trendy Shoreditch district, customers are billed for the amount of time they spend in the venue – with free drinks, food and wifi thrown in.

It is a novel idea, and the latest in a long line of innovative business models – many of which have sprung up since the recession to lure customers through the doors of eating and drinking establishments.

In some restaurants, customers have been asked to pay in pounds the same amount as is on the clock – if it is 5pm, you pay £5, if 7.30pm, you pay £7.30 and so on.

Voucher deals and codes shot to the dizzy heights of a daily obsession for many – and since retreated into relative obscurity. Other cafes – albeit those very different in style to the vintage-themed Ziferblat – have offered all-you-can-eat menus, or free food for anyone who can complete “eating challenges”.

Two-for-one deals still remain ubiquitous, while one swanky eaterie south of the Border this week tried to tap into the market of diet-conscious restaurant-goers with the launch of a 500-calorie menu.

I’m left hungry at the very thought, but it must float someone’s boat.

Ziferblat, billed as a “social experiment” devised by founder Ivan Mitin, is already a hit in Russia with nine venues to its name and numerous copycat businesses, and is more ideological than a cash-driven business gimmick.

Aimed at free-thinking creatives who can tinker on the public piano while contemplating their next novel, Mitin, himself an author, has des­cribed his venue as a place where the “stupid and artificial” rules of society don’t work.

The idea of the UK branch is that it’s a bit like a social club – not only can users take advantage of the hospitality of free food and drinks, but they can also host events in the space and treat it as though it’s their own home.

There are some ingredients left in the pantry for public consumption. So, if you don’t like what’s on offer, biscuit-wise, you can rustle yourself up a tasty omelette – or a peanut butter sandwich. Alternatively, you are just as welcome to bring your own food and drink from home.

In theory, this all sounds lovely and community-spirited, but I’m not sure I could cope with the ticking clock, racking up my bill – however much cheaper it is in reality than if I had bought the same food or drink at any other cafe.

Even the name Ziferblat means “clock face” in Russian, which would be a constant reminder that the seconds were passing, the clock hands turning and my wallet emptying.

As a journalist, I thrive on working to deadline. Even as a child I used to set myself time targets before I did anything. Get dressed before the clock ticked over to 7.30, tidy away my toys in a minute and a half. Go! OCD much?

Perhaps, but academic studies have shown that while some people’s brains are wired to work efficiently against deadlines, it isn’t the most relaxing or productive way to live.

A study by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile found that time pressure usually makes people less creative. Not surprising, really. How creative can you be when a little voice is counting down into your ear?

Instead of the hippy dippy relaxed vibe which Mitin is aiming for, the whole idea conjurs up images of desperate half-hours spent in dingy internet cafes on pre-smartphone holidays, trying to type out a quick missive back home before the timer counted down to zero and the computer spontaneously combusted.

As for me, the amount of time it’s taken me to write this week’s column, it’s lucky I’m not sitting in a pay-by- hour cafe right now. £1.33, £1.66. I’ve got writer’s block – oops, that’ll be £300 please, madam.