San Francisco Politicians Aim To Reduce Tech’s Free-Dining Perks – Liza B. Zimmerman


Two Bay Area supervisors, local restaurants and the executive director of the city’s restaurant association have put a controversial dining proposal—in a food-obsessed city—on the voting docket for the fall. They are negotiating for new companies that open in the city of San Francisco to not allow free employee cafeterias.

This proposal comes decades after young engineers have continually gloated about the fact there is little more than an egg in their fridge. Free food has long been seen as an essential benefit—tantamount to good health care—in the tech sector. Companies like Google have long boasted everything from vegetarian to BBQ options in its free canteens.

The politicians, supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin, and Golden Gate Restaurant Association’s executive director Gwyneth Borden announced in a press conference two days ago, that these types of dining experiences can encourage employees to stay inside the office and have also hurt the local restaurant scene in a number of ways.

“The economic vitality of San Francisco’s streets is related to the ground floor experience—active storefronts that promote pedestrian traffic and drive retail transactions. In all our commercial zoning areas, buildings are zone mixed-use, ground floor retail/restaurant with office above. This only works if the office use supports the ground floor retail,” explained Borden.

The legislation would not be retroactive and the city of Mountain View, which is home to Google and many other tech companies, has led the way in passing a similar measure, she shared. However, “we’re the first city to propose something citywide.” The new rule, if passed, would not ban onsite food or for-pay cafeterias. There are currently, according to Borden, 51 free cafeterias in the city of San Francisco.

The Fallout

The initial response from tech companies, and those who cater their food, has been a mixed bag with some companies noting that free food—however it is provided—is an important perk. “Food is integral to a business’s success with the potential to improve culture and productivity within the office. That’s why high-performing companies began offering this benefit in the first place,” said Ali Sabeti, the COO of the San Francisco-based Zero Cater, which provides catered meals for tech companies.

Google, Uber and Square—all of which have large San Francisco offices—did not respond in time to multiple requests for feedback for this story.

“Companies that offer food as a benefit experience improved productivity and create a happier, more engaged workforce,” added Sabeti. ZeroCater carried out a small survey of 100 office employees in February of this year and “found [that] 90% of employers say meals help their teams build stronger relationships. Meanwhile 78% of employees surveyed consider it important for their employers to provide food in the office, saying meals saved them time and money.”

Other Solutions

Should the measure pass, there will still be other ways for employers to provide meals for their staff. “They can cater in or provide vouchers to eat nearby as benefits,” noted Anthony Myint, the owner of the restaurant the Perennial. He added that, “there are many buildings without internal cafeterias and this legislation is a pendulum swing to counteract some of the over-the-top, golden-handcuff style cafeterias and to defend the local businesses that are already in place.”

He went on to say that tech workers will still be able decide what to eat and drink to their own tune. However, “that kind of city is not what the policy makers are choosing. Individuals who truly want that can work at existing developments. The city is saying that when a new development goes in and shutters itself off, local businesses all end up closing.”

He, along with other restaurateurs interviewed, cited that many restaurants located in the city’s Mid-Market and South of Market (SOMA) neighborhoods were closing. Both areas are home to a vibrant tech community along with many new luxury condos, where the monthly rent usually necessitates a well-paid—and often tech-focused—job.

In addition, Borden added that, “activity at the street level has the multiplier effect of supporting other local businesses. And restaurants and other small businesses, unlike global companies that have private cafeterias, are reliant upon generating all their revenue locally so actual foot traffic is crucial to their survival. And while there will always be competition for the food dollar, it goes without saying that it’s hard to compete with free.”

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