Lunch, and where people eat it, has become a big topic of conversation in San Francisco.
In the week since Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safaí proposed a ban on new “employee cafeterias” — food halls often found inside tech companies — the city has erupted with a range of reactions. While supporters see the proposal as a way to reinvigorate the local economy by forcing employees to step out of their offices for lunch, critics say it will just cause an unnecessary squabble with the tech industry.
“What’s the message?” said Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. “Is San Francisco remaining open for all types of businesses and all types of work models? This is one other regulation of how people can operate their businesses.”
Food serves many functions at modern tech companies: It’s an attractive perk to lure talent and encourages co-workers to interact with one another during the day and stay longer in the office. But Peskin and Safaí argue this perk has come at the expense of local retailers, particularly in the Mid-Market neighborhood, who complain foot traffic has dropped as companies sequester their employees in private company cafeterias.
Employee cafeterias are spaces inside an office where workers are provided or sold tax-free food on a regular basis. There are about 40 office cafeterias in the city, most of them within tech companies with thousands of employees, such as Twitter, Uber, Google and Square.
The ordinance would apply only to new construction, such as the millions of square feet of office space proposed under the Central SoMa Plan, which will soon go before the Board of Supervisors.
Since the ban ordinance was unveiled at an empty Mid-Market restaurant last week, Peskin said there has been a lot of misunderstanding around it. It’s not about targeting a particular industry, he said, but rather about spurring a conversation about how companies can engage with local businesses.
“I look forward to continuing the conversation and fine tuning” the proposal, he said. “We’re not trying to take away anyone’s lunch.”
Peskin said another motivation behind the proposal is to reassess how the Mid-Market neighborhood has fared since the city offered companies tax breaks a few years ago to move into Mid-Market. The assumption was that the tens of thousands of well-paid employees would eventually liven up the long-derelict stretch of Market Street.
“The promises around Mid-Market were about how it would be reinvigorated and good for ground floor businesses,” he said. But “those promises have not materialized, in part because of the insulated nature of this type of land use.”
A walk along the blocks of Mid-Market during the middle of the day shows what he means. There is little pedestrian traffic where the tech companies are clustered near Van Ness Avenue and business is sparse at many restaurants, like Corridor and the Perennial. East of Eighth Street, San Francisco’s famously rough street life — desperate people, open drug use and filthy sidewalks — are on full display.
Located in the shadow of Twitter, Uber and Square’s headquarters, Kagawa-Ya Udon often looks full at lunchtime. But owner Katherine Chiao says that’s misleading: Given the thousands of employees around her fast-casual restaurant, she said there should be much more foot-traffic than there is on a given day.
“We were aware of the cafeterias in some of these larger tenants,” she said, “but we didn’t know the magnitude of it, that it would be breakfast, lunch, dinner, and they wouldn’t come down.”
When Square, a digital payments company, closes its cafeteria every other Friday, Kagawa-Ya Udon is flooded with so much business that Chiao said she needs to increase her staffing.
“It’s a godsend that they do that,” she said.
But every other day, when Square’s cafeteria is open, Chiao said she feels “misled” by the promise of the neighborhood. Although the proposed ban wouldn’t take away the cafeterias around her, it would give her hope that companies would start encouraging employees to go out for food. But, she said, an outright ban is “extreme.”
“If they put a ban or some kind of restriction, it would just put more money into the neighborhood,” she said. But “there should be a better way to please both sides.”
Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, said while he agrees with the intent to help small businesses, this proposal could lead to a slippery slope when it comes to the tech industry.
“Are we going to be telling people where they should eat or can eat? It feels like it is crossing the line,” he said. “It will further the sense that tech people feel somewhat unwelcome here. And that could be problematic. The city has a lot of its economic future on that.”
Labor groups also say how the proposal could impact well-paying and secure jobs in the food industry that serves the corporate cafeterias. And other critics aren’t convinced that banning cafeterias will achieve the goal of revitalizing small businesses.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen said she initially viewed the ban as a reasonable way to support small businesses.
“But when you think about it more,” she said, “I’m not sure this is the right solution. It might help a few businesses right around areas where there are tech companies, but it’s not really addressing the overall crisis. And I just don’t know that legislation banning something else in San Francisco is helpful right now.”
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman had a similar reaction. “Maybe we’ll find good evidence that ... many people would leave work earlier and go to dinner in the Castro,” he said. “But I’m a little skeptical.”
Even if passed, however, the proposal may not make much of a difference. Many tech companies without cafeterias have food, often from local suppliers, delivered to their offices at lunchtime.
But Harry Glaser, co-founder and CEO of Periscope Data, which has its lunch catered every day, says the proposal encouraged him to start thinking of how he should change his company’s lunch habits.
“I think it is reasonable for them to expect us to engage in the community,” he said. “And the community should get the benefit of our business.”