San Francisco Moves to Prohibit New Free Cafeterias But NOT Free Food

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On Tuesday, July 24, GGRA Executive Director Gwyneth Borden joined Supervisors Ahsha Safai and Aaron Peskin as they introduced legislation to prohibit non-retail cafeterias in new office buildings.  The legislation is not retroactive and does not prevent on-site retail/paid cafeterias and it does not prevent the provision of free food; the press release is here and legislative digest can be found here.  The legislation is done in support of restaurants and small businesses which are negatively impacted when companies don’t support the retail around them.  The legislation goes through the legislative process in September.

As we’re acutely aware, restaurants only exist through patronage and restaurants located in cities do so to serve local businesses, residents and tourists alike.  San Francisco’s planning code has always required mixed-use office buildings, meaning that office buildings are required by code to provide ground floor retail space, but now more than ever space is being unfilled as employees aren’t leaving their offices to eat.  The vibrancy of the city with bustling retail and people is in jeopardy when the business community is not spending their money in local restaurants and shops.  Restaurants often provide the anchor to get people on the street to patronize other retail.  Traditional retail has been hurting with the growth of online shopping, so anything that increases 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, so why not use local restaurants to support these employee benefit efforts?

San Francisco’s Mid-Market is a great example of an area where a record number of jobs located and the accompanying restaurants that followed struggled to gain traffic.  Other nearby restaurants that pre-existed the Mid-Market redevelopment found that their traffic slowed when their customers were relocated to spaces with large-scale cafeterias.  And it should be noted that businesses that located in the Mid-Market were provided a tax break with their promise of economic benefits to the area beyond just occupying the offices, so it’s not as if city intervention is new on these issues.  Employees that never leave their offices is of little economic benefit to the city around them if their companies are not purchasing food from local businesses.  There are some businesses that cater-in food from local restaurants and others that provide employee gift-card or vouchers for some or all times, which do support local businesses and we encourage this.  We are not against free meals, the issue is how they’re provided.

We look forward to working with other business leaders, elected officials and others on this issue moving forward.

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