Company Cafeterias Under Threat From City Hall

Small cafes and restaurants located near large tech companies with in-house cafeterias say their businesses are suffering, despite thousands of office works coming to the neighborhood every day.

The tech industry in San Francisco is booming, and as companies compete for workers, amenities have become a valuable bargaining chip. These days employee packages include pet-friendly offices, health insurance, stock options, generous vacation time, and for 51 companies in San Francisco, in-house cafeterias. 

Company cafeterias largely fly under the radar; Most people don’t know which company has one and which don’t unless they work there.  But cafes and restaurants surrounding office buildings are certainly aware of company cafeterias, and claim that they significantly detract from business. 

On Tuesday, Supervisors Ahsha Safai and Aaron Peskin introduced legislation that would prohibit future in-house cafeterias in office buildings and tech campuses. This wouldn’t apply retroactively — those 51 existing cafeterias would not be affected — but it does set an interesting standard going forward of exactly how insular companies and their employees are allowed to be within the city. It’s a bold move packed into a short paragraph.

“An ‘Employee Cafeteria,’ as defined in section 451(h) of the Health Code, is a prohibited use in Office space. Any such use lawfully existing or finally approved as of July 24, 2018 may continue and be maintained as a legal nonconforming Accessory Use but may not be expanded or re-installed if abandoned,” it reads. 

The legislation does not apply to catering companies, and it does not ban companies from buying employees free food. 

“Many of these companies touted the boost their employees would have on our local economy, only to provide everything from round-the-clock gourmet catering to dry cleaning on-site,” Peskin says. “Going forward, this legislation restores some of the promised investment in our economy, the city, and our society.”

Fair enough, but why is this being introduced now? Safai says it’s a vital policy to put in place before the city approves the Central SoMa Plan, which will include a massive amount of new office construction. 

“This is about encouraging thousands of employees to leave their offices and add to the vibrancy of San Francisco,” he says. 

Ryan Cole, owner of the Corridor, which is located on Van Ness Avenue just around the corner from the Twitter building, says that he sees “thousands of employees in a two-block radius that don’t go out for lunch, don’t come out and support our restaurants. That’s because they don’t have to. Companies are so generous inside their own building, and you can’t compete with free.”

Predictably, the legislation has the strong support of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “Restaurants and other neighborhood-serving retail are the backbone of our city’s vitality,” says Executive Director Gwyneth Border. “Their ecosystem of success relies on local businesses and residents to engage with the community around them — something that fortress-like offices, with, in some cases, multiple on-site cafeterias do not encourage.” 

In the end it’s one small paragraph, that if passed, could have dramatic ripple effects on small businesses in office-heavy neighborhoods. But in between the lines of this legislation lies a much bigger question: How do corporations’ amenities, culture, and internal policies affect the city as a whole? And how much of a role should San Francisco play in regulating that?

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