Planning Commission Rejects the Cafeteria Ban but it’s the Negative Narrative About Restaurants That Should Worry the Industry
The San Francisco Planning Commission rejected that cafeteria ban legislation at its Thursday, October 25th hearing. Although an imperfect solution to the problem of companies building massive free cafeteria operations that siphon off customers and staff, we supported the notion as this trend is not positive for restaurants or neighborhood revitalization efforts. While it was not particularly surprising that the uproar of technology companies and labor superseded any real conversation on the issue, it was disappointing that there wasn’t a serious consideration of alternatives to address the issue. Planning Staff had suggested some other approaches and we suggested instead creating a Conditional Use Authorization process for these cafeterias instead of a ban. Restaurants, which have far less capital, are forced to pursue Conditional Use Authorization in many zoning districts of the City, particularly if they want to serve alcohol, while these cafeterias (which do sometimes provide alcohol) are not subject to the same rules. And interestedly enough, office cafeterias can be located anywhere in a building, while restaurants are limited to ground floor usage in most zoning districts.
Instead, healthy debate was sidelined to criticize working in restaurants as terrible low-paying jobs with awful hours and no reward. This narrative is dangerous to the future vitality of our industry. San Francisco is a global culinary destination because of its creativity, authenticity, and access to incredible local food product. But as we all know, food jobs generally aren’t well compensated — whether you’re a farmer, fisherman, grape picker or chef. Part of the challenge is the unwillingness of the dining public to pay more for their food, which directly affects the wages in our industry. Restaurants cannot financially compete with billion dollar valuation companies paying for all day food, but they provide a sense of community, place, heritage, and soul; and can be pathways of opportunity to ownership. Restaurants provide neighborhood vitality often referred to in planning language as “eyes on the street” and studies have shown that restaurants are the number one reason people leave their neighborhood to visit another, which can benefit all the other businesses in a corridor. Finally, whether its gift certificates, sales proceeds, donating food or hosting fundraisers, restaurants are all around supporters of their local communities greatly benefiting neighborhood nonprofits and schools.
The industry should be concerned when elected and appointed leaders, members of the current or future workforce or the general public believe people aren’t well served working in restaurants. This narrative threatens the very vitality of the industry. If we don’t do more to change this perception, today’s workforce shortage will be tomorrow’s full-scale crisis jeopardizing the very future of this industry in the San Francisco Bay Area.