The money got too big to ignore. From a trickle of news stories a year ago, when a single Bitcoin cost just under £827, there now seems to be a Bitcoin story every other day. It is currently trading at £7,160.93, and people have made staggering profits, and not just on Bitcoin. Ethereum, the second most popular cryptocurrency, has risen by more than 2,500% since January 2017. Big money is big news.
But there are places where Bitcoin is more than just an entertaining headline, where it is actually used and traded like the conventional currencies it seeks to replace.
I made my way to the Old Street roundabout, known as “Silicon Roundabout” for its proximity to so many tech startups, and dropped into Nincomsoup. In this friendly, relaxed restaurant, sitting inconspicuously beside a fridge of healthy juices and yogurts, sits a Bitcoin ATM. It reminds me of a prop from Back to the Future II – futuristic but in a late 1980s kind of way.
Ben Page-Phillips, who runs Nincomsoup with his brother Tom, was asked to trial the ATM 5 years ago by Satoshi Point, who currently have 24 ATMs in the UK. “At that time this place was a desert, far from the tech hub it is today. They asked us to trial it and and we were happy to give it a go. We like to support innovation and the price of Bitcoin was then about £130.” Back then a bowl of Nincomsoup’s delicious fish stew at £3.95, would have cost you 0.03 Bitcoins at today’s rate it would cost you a measly 0.00055 bitcoins – that’s a lot more bang for your Bitcoin!
Page-Phillips also accepts the currency as payment using an app called XBTerminal on his restaurant’s iPad till system. As I start to do the math on just how much this man must be worth today, Page-Phillips chuckles. “No, we never got into to investing in Bitcoin. We immediately cash out any Bitcoin back into sterling. It’s just something I didn’t want to have to know or understand, but in hindsight it would have been amazing. No, soups, juices and coffee are my areas of expertise.”
The restaurant is not exposed to the volatile swings that the value of bitcoin can make but Page-Phillips does like the lower cost it brings to processing sales, unlike the “crazy fees” charged by credit card companies. “I love that it’s outside the banking system, but I have concerns,” he says.
When Bitcoin is increasing (or “mooning” as it’s known in the crypto world) the restaurant gets about six transactions a week. The ATM on the other hand has a steady flow of customers all year round.
Invented in 2008 by an unknown programmer or group, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.
Each Bitcoin is a string of computer code, which is protected by a personal key. It allows consumers to make electronic transactions without commercial banks as intermediaries, and outside the reach of central banks.
It’s estimated that there are between 2.9 million and 5.8 million active users of cryptocurrency wallets – the space where users store, send and receive currencies. Other cryptocurrencies include Ethereum and Ripple.
In the 30 minutes I spent talking to Page-Phillips, three people used the ATM. It does not just sell Bitcoin but also several other alt-coins – currencies similar to Bitcoin but less popular – including Litecoin, Dodge, Ethereum and Bitcoin Cash.
Lerron, 17, from Dalston, told me he buys £10 worth of Litecoin a week. “It’s the future. I put all my extra cash in it,” he says. “I just hope that I’m picking the right one!” He tells me his friends also come and use the machine and see it as a good way to save money. “If I’m walking around with an extra 10 then I’ll drop in and buy some Litecoin.” Tempted by this brave young tyro of the digital frontier, I decided to take the plunge into the world of digital dinero and buy 10 pounds worth of Litecoin. It’s now worth £8.12 so it looks like I’m going to have to hold on to dear life!