The first black female mayor of San Francisco made history Wednesday as she took the oath of office, vowing to help drug users and the homeless in a city known for extreme wealth and poverty. (July 11)
SAN FRANCISCO — Food, glorious (and free) food, that classic tech company perk, may soon be off the menu here.
Two city supervisors have introduced legislation that would nix the installation of non-retail cafeterias in office buildings, a measure aimed at encouraging legions of workers to patronize often struggling neighborhood eateries.
If the proposal gains traction this fall, it would not retroactively affect San Francisco-based companies such as Twitter and Uber that already offer employees free chef-prepared chow, nor would it prevent future startups from setting up in-house kitchens. But they’d have to charge their workers for the meals.
But it would mean that future employees are more likely to hit the streets for their sustenance, thrilling local merchants.
The new proposal is part of a growing pushback against some of the less popular byproducts of the technology juggernaut that has invaded the San Francisco Bay Area over the past decade.
The unpopular side effects include skyrocketing housing prices, fleets of giant commuter buses clogging city streets, and, most recently, an electric-scooter invasion that caused city officials to temporarily yank them off the streets.
While cafeterias at tech companies in sprawling suburban areas might make sense, that approach is incongruous with operating in an urban environment, says city supervisor Ahsha Safai, who co-sponsored the legislation with supervisor Aaron Peskin.
“We’re in the process of entitling 6 million square feet of new office space, so it’s the right time to ensure that the vibrancy of our neighborhoods is preserved,” says Safai, an urban planner by training.
“San Francisco has a rich history of culinary expertise and cuisine,” he adds. “We’re not talking about taking away a perk. You can still provide it, through vouchers or food accounts or catering. There are lots of ways to enhance and support the local economy.”
Anthony Myint is co-owner of The Perennial, a sophisticated eatery that features Aquaponic Kale and McFarland Springs Trout not far from headquarters of Twitter and Uber south of the city’s bustling financial district.
He was hopeful that the presence of thousands of well-paid young professionals would be a boon to his establishment. But instead he said he’s struggled to stay afloat while others floundered.
“Around eight restaurants within two blocks of here, some with Michelin-rated chefs, have all closed, and we’re struggling to make ends meet,” says Myint.
“This (new law) is just a response to a bomb dropping on our neighborhoods. I don’t think this is what the city had in mind when they offered tech companies tax breaks to lure them here,” he says, referring to temporary payroll breaks offered to tech companies who relocated to the blighted mid-Market area by late mayor Ed Lee.
The area around Perennial could use a flood of cash-toting employees. The sidewalks are not humming, and what few pedestrians there are share space with the city’s homeless.
Twitter’s building, the former Western Furniture Exchange, features a public supermarket on the ground floor as well as an in-house cafeteria that features specialties of the day and caters to a range of tastes, from paleo to vegetarian to comfort food.
Across the street, there’s a credit union, a Starbucks and a hostel, and an idling burrito truck. Uber’s building is even more stark, with no ground floor restaurants and shops.
One can easily see the appeal of creating an in-house oasis that offers meals: it’s a chance for workers to stay on the clock longer and collaborate together, and it’s become a standard perk for recruiting and retaining in-demand tech workers.
But sending those same employees into the neighborhood could revitalize it, city officials and restaurant owners argue.
Across this city there are 51 private cafeterias offering free food, most of them at tech companies, says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, adding that those operations are cutting into the livelihoods of some 64,000 people who work in the 5,000-plus eateries that dot this foodie town.
“Lunch specifically has been a struggle, and many of these restaurants either are forced to close or get creative,” says Borden, noting that some of them turn their eateries during the day into co-working spaces, while others get into the delivery business.
“But it’s tough,” she says. “The benefit (to neighborhood businesses) of luring these tech companies isn’t being realized.”
Twitter, Uber, Facebook and other big companies declined to comment on the proposed no-free-food measure. And some major tech companies take a different approach to gratis grub: for example, Apple charges its employees for food, while Amazon offers only in-house break rooms in order to steer its staff into the community.
Jennifer Stojkovic, executive director of sf.citi, a pro-tech advocacy group, says that banning companies from feeding employees for free isn’t the right solution.
“We acknowledge the intent behind the measure, but consider the significant impact that is brought to the city by high quality, high wage jobs in the foodservice sector by our member companies,” she says.
San Francisco isn’t the the only city to grapple with the boom in corporate cafeterias. In some cases, they’ve welcomed the in-house lunch spots as an alternative to more gridlock.
Take the Silicon Valley city of Mountain View, home to Google’s sprawling campus just east of the 101 freeway. Without the lure of free meals — and with no alternate way to get to the city’s center — thousands of Google employees likely would take to their cars in search of food around their headquarters’ suburban sprawl.
“That would just be terrible for traffic and for the environment, so we are glad they have a place to eat right there,” says Mountain View city councilman John McAlister, whose council instead is promoting a head tax on companies that would mostly would go to transportation improvements.
But in contrast, when Facebook soon adds another 2,000 employees in a new office in Mountain View, there will be restrictions on feeding that crowd.
Back in 2014, McAlister says the company leasing space at the Village at San Antonio Center stipulated that tenants would be banned from fully subsidizing employee meals in order to assure area food vendors of a steady clientele.
“The point is to keep the area vibrant by having people head out into the community and spend their money,” says McAlister. “If you want economic wealth in your area, people who work there have to spend their money.”
In San Francisco, an experiment by tech company Square shows just how much steering employees into area eateries can help. Every other Friday, Square shuts down its in-house cafeteria and gives employees vouchers to patronize restaurants, many of which are on Square’s payment platform.
Restaurant advocate Borden says eateries near Square have seen a big uptick in business from this policy. She notes that if other tech companies followed Square’s lead, the impact to local businesses could be significant.
Ultimately, she argues, tech companies should see that having a vibrant neighborhood around them could be a bigger lure for prospective employees than no-cost meals.
“The mechanics of a great city are the streetscape, those vibrant commercial corridors where restaurants serve as anchors to vitality. Besides, you don’t really think that people take a job just for the free food?”
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