With a mobile phone that had run out of battery, it dawned on me that I don’t take much notice of street names. I was going to have to try to find this new café in the dark as the temperature plummeted or, worse, ask a stranger for directions. It turns out I know Edge Street pretty well considering it already houses some of my Northern Quarter favourites, but I don’t think this venue will be making the list.

I was about to sample Ziferblat (Russian for ‘clock face’), the timed café which had just opened to become the second in the UK (after London’s, sadly). I missed the hype at the opening of Almost Famous (their veggie unfriendly menu might have played a part), so I was keen to get in early and make up my mind about this new idea. I can drink as many cups of tea as I like for 5p per minute, you say?

“There must be provisos on it to stop people like me going in and scoffing everything in three minutes and paying 15p,” my friend noted as we deliberated over how exactly it would work. Would we clock in and out like cogs in a machine or would they trust you to admit how long you’d been there? Filled with questions, I rang the buzzer on this office-fronted building. Welcoming signposts ensure you actually arrive at the café and aren’t too perturbed by the immediate non-tea-room aesthetic.

My social anxiety at this large, hectic room forced me to visibly recoil. People were milling about and seemed to know what they were doing. I joined a queue leading to the desk. If in doubt, join the back of a queue. I found a plug for my phone (I’d only had it two weeks and was already ‘one of those iPhone people’) and thought, ‘Well I haven’t paid anything yet and I’m charging my phone in the warm – not bad’. It emerged as I neared the front of the queue after 15 minutes or more, I was in fact queuing to pay, not to ‘clock in’. Attempting to not look remotely embarrassed whilst my flushed cheeks gave me away, I moved to the other side of the check in desk, the type of stylised table with desk lamp which wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. Sadly, this is offset by wallpaper imitating book shelves – wince-inducing for any bibliophile. I shared a friendly grin with a couple who had made the same mistake as me, trying to brush off the awkward feeling I knew we all shared at not having a clue how to act or what the format was in a non-café café.

So, they had my name and I was to be unleashed on the free tea and cakes. No one explained the system to me. Clearly my aloofness at the desk worked too well and they had assumed I’d been before.

Walking over to the kitchenette area, the first week of living in halls came back with a jolt. Here I was being encouraged to feel I was at home in somewhere which wasn’t my home and had no familiarity or warmth to me. I was supposed to act naturally, like I was comfortable in these new surroundings. I should say here that I lived off toast and peanut butter for the first week of university, being too worried to cook actual meals in front of my new flatmates. So, yes, this level of hypersensitivity to the unknown won’t be shared by everyone. But something about the kitchen area and ‘help yourself’ service reminded me acutely of this situation. Social adeptness is laid on the table alongside the custard creams.

After the to-do of getting a drink and standing for too long near a plate of biscuits, I then had to find a seat. I walked with purpose and forced myself to just sit on the damn sofa. Whilst waiting for my friend (and paying 5p per minute for the privilege), I noted there are those who stride confidently about and decided it must be for one for three reasons. 1) they might have been there for hours and now felt settled, 2) they were amazingly confident and were very lucky to always pick the cupboard they needed by sheer chance, or 3) they were just acting confident and too embarrassed to admit mistakes, so were left grinning away and making a bowl of cereal they didn’t want because they ended up in the cereal cupboard with a bowl in their hand.

After I’d found the courage to get up and explore, I was in the third group. No, I didn’t want a coffee, but where were the tea bags? And now someone else had moved out of the way of the coffee machine to let me re-caffeinate myself. I felt a latte pressure.

Ziferblat has been termed a social experiment. For someone whose aim is to analyse human interaction or how it raises social anxiety levels, this would be a good locale, but really this is a franchise with 14 cafés worldwide, the first in Russia. How do they make money? Well, the selection of drinks and cakes is not great, and is clearly cheap. They stock shop-bought products, so this isn’t going to satisfy your Sugar Junction or Tea Cup cravings. Also, the milk and possibly other items are from Tesco, somewhere I actively boycott, which left me in a quandary. I had already paid to use it, so I should do so. But wait, my money is going to Tesco by me creating more demand for milk in the café. Inevitably, I drank a coffee I didn’t want with milk which soured my ethics and was still too nervous to help myself to cake.

The most important aspect is time. Their website states, “Everything is free inside except that most valuable of assets, time, and by paying for your time you’ll be helping grow this idea, in Manchester, Europe and around the world.” Suddenly, this café becomes the prime setting for any dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel. How are you meant to relax knowing each 60 seconds you remain there is costing you? Each page of my book could be valued in how long it had taken to read, and therefore how many more pennies that pleasure was costing me. Once my friend had joined me, their tardiness caused undue stress as the normal worry of being late was now coupled with knowing they’d effectively cost me time and money. In a society where very little is given freely and money is always the objective, it’s hard to see what is different about Ziferblat. I’m all for new and exciting spaces, but let’s hope the next one is a mobile phone-free café or bar that could have the potential for some rather more interesting social interactions.


Amelia Bayliss