No Free Lunches

San Francisco considers banning employee cafeterias

Urbanism West
A proposed ordinance in San Francisco would bar employee cafeterias from providing free food to office employees. (RawPixel/Unsplash)
A proposed ordinance in San Francisco would bar employee cafeterias from providing free food to office employees. (RawPixel/Unsplash)

To the chagrin of downtown delis, pizza joints, and taquerias everywhere, tech companies in San Francisco have found yet another treasured urban tradition to disrupt: lunch. 

Specifically, in recent years, as San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood has been transformed by the arrival of sizable offices for Twitter, Uber, Google, and others, street life in the area has fizzled. The culprit, critics say, are the free lunches often provided by tech companies to their employees, one of the many perks used to lure new hires and build team morale. A potential side effect, however, is that office workers no longer go out to eat as often as in the past, and the shift is threatening to upend the livelihoods of businesses that have traditionally catered to the nine-to-five crowd.

In response, San Francisco Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safaí have introduced a new city ordinance that would ban start-up style “employee cafeterias” from new office developments. The bill would aim to curb employers from providing free or tax-free food to their workers on a regular basis but would have no effect on the 51 cafeterias currently in operation across the city.

Safaí told The San Francisco Chronicle that the ban was about instigating a cultural shift, adding, “This is about getting people out of their office, interacting with the community and adding to the vibrancy of the community.”



In a statement, Peskin explained the motion would also hold companies accountable for the promises they made while pursuing approvals from the city. He said, “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.”

The measure, if passed, would be the second such initiative in the region, following a precedent set by nearby Mountain View. There, the municipality forbade Facebook from subsidizing employee meals as part of a recent expansion in a bid to get the tech company to engage economically with the local community. 

Michael Kasperzak, the former Mountain View mayor who helped craft the 2014 ordinance told The Chronicle, “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.”

The initiative has not been expanded to include other businesses yet, but could potentially apply to a new 595,000-square-foot, tent-like headquarters Google, BIG, and Heatherwick Studio are planning in the city. There, designers have proactively included plans for publicly-accessible cafes and dining areas that would be shared with Google employees. 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is due to take up its proposed ban later this year. 

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