San Francisco

Tech Workers Don’t Eat at Enough Local Restaurants? Better Ban Workplace Cafeterias!

A bill in San Francisco would prohibit new office spaces from having cafeterias on site.

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San Francisco wants to ban workplace cafeterias. I'm serious.

On Tuesday, City Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safaí announced that they would be introducing legislation banning corporate campuses from maintaining cafeterias for their employees. The exact details are unclear as the bill's text is not yet available, but the San Francisco Examiner says that Peskin will be using local social engineers' favorite tool—the zoning code—to prohibit new "industrial kitchens" in commercial office buildings. Existing cafeterias would reportedly be grandfathered in.

To hear it from the sponsors, the point of the ban is to integrate San Francisco's reclusive tech workers into the hustle and bustle of city life. It's "about a cultural shift," Safaí tells the San Francisco Chronicle. "We don't want employees biking or driving into their office, staying there all day long and going home. This is about getting people out of their office, interacting with the community and adding to the vibrancy of the community."

But this isn't just a case of councilmen playing the pushy parent telling a kid to get out there and mingle. An element of protectionism is at work here too.

Many Bay City restaurants see corporate cafeterias as unbeatable competition for the lunchtime crowd. Forcing these workers back onto the streets in the middle of the day is supposed to increase their business.

"The historic model is that people would go to work, and then flow outside during lunch," Peskin tells the Chronicle. "The idea here is to bolster, not only the restaurant business, but other ground floor retail businesses that are suffering."

The Chronicle threw some shade on this idea in another article yesterday, pointing to other factors—market saturation, a lack of parking—that explain the tough times experienced by some San Francisco eateries. Nevertheless, the measure has earned the support of the city's restaurant association.

Incredibly, San Francisco is not the first city to pursue such a policy. In 2014, the Bay Area community of Mountain View—home to Google—prohibited employers from fully subsidizing more than 50 percent of their employees' in-office meals. Here too, local officials argued the ban was needed to protect local restaurants and retailers. The rule was not retroactive, so it had little effect when it passed. But when Facebook opens new office space in the town, it will have to be cafeteria-free.

This is neither the first nor the worst of San Francisco's attempts to fix an imaginary problem with a petty restriction, but it just might be the most offensive to my libertarian sensibilities. Where you choose to spend your lunch break is not a public concern. Handwringing about struggling restaurants or atomizing social trends does not make it one.

If San Francisco politicos really want to give restaurants a helping hand, they could lessen the city's tax and regulatory burdens. And if they want to make tech workers more active in city life, maybe—just maybe—they should stop writing bills that vilify them.