The dacha of Ziferblat: Pay by the minute — everything else is on the house

The Russian “anti-cafe” Ziferblat [Clock face], where customers pay only for the time they spend there, has opened its first outlet in the style of a dacha, or Russian country cottage. RBTH’s correspondent visited this rustic version of Ziferblat to test out the idea of pay-by-the-minute country romance.

The country-style Ziferblat, where visitors pay only for the duration of their stay with everything else free, is due to open outside Moscow on August 9. Alongside this new dacha-style expansion, the format, invented by Russian businessman Ivan Mitin, is going international: “anti-cafes” are already operating in Moscow and London, and one is set to open its doors in New York.

The birth of “Ziferdacha”

The “dacha” works on the same principle as its urban counterparts. On the walls of the large suburban house hang clocks of various shapes and sizes with static hands symbolizing frozen time. Frequenters readily quote Russian writer Alexander Griboyedov: “Happy are those who don’t notice the time.”

“Our only concept of time here is morning, afternoon, evening, and night,” explains Marina, keeper of the hearth and owner of the house. Marina flies around the premises with cups and potholders, calling her guests to the table. Her husband Garik was the brains behind the project. A couple of years back he and his family had a cafe in Sochi with an unusual policy: visitors paid a set entrance free and were then free to eat and drink without restrictions. When Garik moved to Moscow, he heard about Ziferblat, which operated on the same model, and met its creator Vanya Mitin. Together they decided to create a suburban version in the style of a dacha.

Tea, coffee, lectures, film screenings, concerts, good people — the only thing not free is the time. Find your nearest cafe online at http://ziferblat.net/

The philosophy remains the same: everything is shared. Anyone can use whatever they like — a hammock, a book from the home library, you name it. However, it’s also possible to buy a vegetable plot on the site and give it a name. That becomes yours, and yours only — no one will dare trample on it.

To ensure peace and order, it is not allowed to bring your own alcohol. Also, before heading out of town, you must get a special “dacha resident certificate,” available from any of the Moscow-based outlets. The process involves a simple interview to vet potential visitors, after which they are given the address of the dacha, which is kept in the strictest confidence. The guys at Ziferblat have a sixth sense for spotting their kind of people, which means life at the dacha is harmonious. In the words of the owners of the house, guests are nearly always familiar with the concept and are used to observing the rules of common decency.

Dacha talk

Mikhail, a regular at Ziferdacha, extols the whole experience: “Even the air here is different. The house creates a particular coolness. Sleep comes easy and natural. You wake up at 6-7 am, refreshed, without the heavy head like in the city.”

But Mikhail is not always up at 6am. He blames the interesting acquaintances he’s forever striking up. Night, he says, is when Ziferdacha becomes a place of deep philosophical debate. Sleep is off the agenda.

It is these profound heart-to-hearts that make setting up a similar establishment abroad a very difficult task, believes Ivan Mitin, owner of the Ziferblat chain. “The English, for example, have no way of saying to ‘speak soul to soul’. Talk among strangers never gets beyond business,” explains Mitin. “In Russia we talk to people we don’t know about philosophy or anything we like.”

For all that, Ivan wants to try to expand abroad, adapting to the realities of the host country yet preserving the principles of Russian dacha culture. Chief among them is openness, says Mitin. Indira, his muse, agrees with him. Together they are developing the Ziferblat concept throughout the world: “We’ve tried to create an open family atmosphere, as if you’re visiting a friend.”

Maybe that’s what will attract foreigners to Ziferdacha? To get a flavor of true Russian hospitality, when a kind-hearted hostess flings open the door to anyone who knocks. To drink morning tea from a samovar fanned on the cottage doorstep, heated above a cone fire. To enjoy the crackle of an old gramophone or write a chapter of a novel about one’s journeys in Russia on an ancient typewriter. Or to even catch a hedgehog in the forest. There’s already one hedgehog at Ziferdacha, the main local pet. The hosts call him “Ziferezh” [Clock face hedgehog]. “Do you have any idea how many beetles we got here? Plus four snakes and two penguins,” laughs Indira. Joking aside, they have plans to build a shelter for dogs. Already guests can bring pets with them, there’s room for all.

Somewhere close to the house is a sign marked “This way to the forest.” There you can eat raspberries, cycle up and down the paths, or take a drive to the nearby brook or lake.

Interestingly, the Ziferblat team raises cash for the project through crowdfunding, while various parts of the interior were presented by visitors — some bring a painting, others a jar of jam. What would you give?
 

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