The cafeteria is a staple of contemporary corporate office buildings, and providing free or low-cost meals to employees is a common perk, particularly in the tech sector. Of course, if employees are eating breakfast, lunch, and even dinner in the same building where they work, that means they’re not patronizing local shops and restaurants. With that in mind, local lawmakers in San Francisco are proposing an amendment to the city’s zoning code to curb the proliferation of office cafeterias and drive more traffic to downtown eateries, the San Francisco Chronicle reports:
In an attempt to attract employees to local restaurants and businesses, Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin are co-sponsoring an ordinance that would ban “employee cafeterias” from new office buildings in the city. This comes as local retailers, particularly those downtown, complain of a drop in business as more companies offer their workers meals in private corporate cafeterias, Safaí said. …
An “employee cafeteria” is defined in the San Francisco health code as a space inside an office where employees are provided or sold tax-free food on a regular basis. These facilities are either operated by company employees or contractors. There are currently 51 such cafeterias around the city, Safaí said. The supervisors’ proposal would put the city at odds with the tech industry, which largely views free food as an essential perk to lure talent. …
“This is also about a cultural shift,” he said. “We don’t want employees biking or driving into their office, staying there all day long and going home. This is about getting people out of their office, interacting with the community and adding to the vibrancy of the community.”
Reactions to the proposal have been predictably mixed, with local restaurateurs supporting it and tech companies and employees criticizing it. The San Francisco Examiner explores the critics’ perspectives:
“It seems like the wrong way to go to solve the problem,” said Jonathan Berger, an employee at a small tech startup. “The supervisors need to consider the ramifications.” Berger declined to say what company he worked for. He noted that private cafeterias provide dozens of jobs for locals, just as nearby restaurants do. When they’re closed down, even for a day, it’s the workers who lose. Berger’s company does not have a cafeteria, but it does pay for employee lunches, he said. …
[T]he legislation doesn’t ban catering, which many large companies do regularly. This, in effect, allows companies to continue with dine-in options for their employees. “Plenty of tech companies that don’t have big cafeterias still bring in catering every day,” Torrey Barrett wrote in a Twitter post. “Don’t see how this will really stop companies from offering free food as a benefit.”
“A lot of people who rely on the benefit aren’t necessarily highly compensated engineers and it’s something that a lot of tech workers depend on,” Sam Schneidman, who works in San Francisco, pointed out to the local NBC News station. “I think it’s probably got its heart in the right place but I don’t think it is going to achieve the desired result,” he added.
The proposal’s backers are pushing back against perceptions that they are taking away a benefit from San Francisco’s office workers. Peskin, the supervisor co-sponsoring the ordinance, noted in comments to the Examiner that it deliberately targets new office buildings and does not touch the 51 employee cafeterias already in the city, “so it’s not goring anybody’s ox.”
The supervisors’ proposal is not without precedent. The Silicon Valley city of Mountain View banned employers from fully subsidizing meals in private cafeterias at the Village at San Antonio Center project, a massive new office park and shopping center where Facebook is opening new offices this fall, the Chronicle reported this week. In this case, as well, the idea behind the regulation is to promote local restaurants and retailers:
Under Mountain View’s rules for the Village complex, meals within the offices can’t be subsidized by more than 50 percent on a regular basis. Facebook can fully subsidize employees if they go to restaurants that are open to the public.
“It really was geared more around trying to make sure we didn’t have 400,000 square feet of office space with people that never left the building,” said Michael Kasperzak, a former Mountain View mayor who worked on the legislation. “If we have all these restaurants, we want this to be a successful development. If employers pay for it, that’s fine.”