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Workplace cafeteria ban met with mixed opinions

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Supervisor Ahsha Safai proposed the ban on workplace cafeterias, which would not impact existing cafeterias. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, unless you work in tech. But that may soon change with a new measure introduced to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday seeking to ban private in-house cafeterias at some of The City’s biggest companies.

The measure, proposed by Supervisor Ahsha Safai and co-sponsored by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, would not shutter existing cafeterias, but prevent the construction of new ones.

These cafeterias, however, aren’t new. San Francisco’s tech giants, such as Twitter and Square, have been operating free dine-in options for years, and the restaurants have felt it.

“I don’t think if you look at it objectively now, the progressive idea 10 years ago has actually been fruitful for The City today. And we see it in our business,” said Ryan Cole of Corridor, a restaurant in downtown San Francisco. “We see thousands of employees in a two block radius that don’t go out for lunch, that don’t come out and support our restaurants.”

Square, a financial services company based in San Francisco, has taken steps to encourage its employees to dine out by closing its cafeteria every other Friday and providing vouchers for its employees to eat at local businesses, such as Corridor. Cole says the restaurant’s traffic increases by 15 percent on those days.

Not everyone, however, is on board with the idea.

“It seems like the wrong way to go to solve the problem,” said Jonathan Berger, an employee at a small tech startup. “The supervisors need to consider the ramifications.” Berger declined to say what company he worked for.

He noted that private cafeterias provide dozens of jobs for locals, just as nearby restaurants do. When they’re closed down, even for a day, it’s the workers who lose.

Berger’s company does not have a cafeteria, but it does pay for employee lunches, he said.

The measure comes as the Board of Supervisors is expected to approve this fall a Central SoMa Plan, which will bring millions more square feet of office space downtown and with it, more hungry employees.

But the legislation doesn’t ban catering, which many large companies do regularly. This, in effect, allows companies to continue with dine-in options for their employees.

“Plenty of tech companies that don’t have big cafeterias still bring in catering every day,” Torrey Barrett wrote in a Twitter post. “Don’t see how this will really stop companies from offering free food as a benefit.”

Supervisors Safai and Peskin say the measure seeks to contribute to San Francisco’s vibrant community and economy. The measure is expected to go before the board for a vote in September, Peskin said.

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