Thoughts on San Francisco's "Employee Cafetaria" Ban

Life Aug 07, 2018

Disclaimer: Like everyone, I have biases (implicit or known). For instance, my current employer has an incredible cafeteria. But I'm also a long-time SF resident and worry about the city's future.

First, exactly what is the ordinance and specifically what does it propose? Links to the actual ordinance are surprisingly absent in most of the reporting I've read, so without further ado, here's the ordinance (number 18077), apparently introduced on July 24 (emphasis mine)

Ordinance amending the Planning Code to prohibit Employee Cafeterias, as defined in the Health Code, within Office space, except for existing Employee Cafeterias; affirming the Planning Department’s determination under the California Environmental Quality Act; making findings of consistency with the General Plan, and the eight priority policies of Planning Code, Section 101.1; and adopting findings of public necessity, convenience, and welfare under Planning Code, Section 302

Alright, so to try and break this down, I'll work with the following questions:

  1. Why are we doing this? In other words, what's the problem we're trying to solve? And of all the problems SF faces, why this problem and why now?
  2. What is the proposed solution?
  3. How are we implementing said solution?


The ordinance mentions "eight priority policies of Planning Code". What are these 8 policies in Section 101.1? Glad you asked! Here's the relevant section. AFAICT, only one of those priorities is actually relevant w.r.t the ordinance – Priority #1 (not sure if they are stack ranked, actually)

That existing neighborhood-serving retail uses be preserved and enhanced and future opportunities for resident employment in and ownership of such businesses enhanced;

OK, that sounds reasonable. What about the other aspects the ordinance mentions (CEQA, "adopting findings .... under Section 302")? I did poke around in the planning code and didn't find anything specific in Section 302, or pointers to any specific findings.

Regardless, as a policy priority, a commitment to neighborhood retail isn't outlandish. The question still remains: given the city's "limited" resources, is this the highest leverage problem to tackle? One could argue that this policy indirectly impacts other BIG issues like public safety, education, healthcare, transportation etc. However, without data to back this up, the connection is tenuous at best.

But for now, let's grant that this is indeed an important lever.


Next, let's think about how we might evaluate the effectiveness of this ordinance – after all, there are likely many ways to invigorate neighborhood retail, and the onus should be on the supervisors to convince everyone else that their proposal to ban employee cafeterias is an effective one.

I personally am curious about the following questions:

  • The ordinance makes a bunch of implicit assumptions, like employee cafeterias are NOT engaged with local businesses. Or that this is the highest leveraged way of increasing neighborhood engagement. Where's the evidence? I know my workplace cafeteria works with dozens of local vendors, for instance.
  • The ordinance does not lay out what impact should we expect when this goes into effect. How will we measure if the ordinance was successful? Is there any metric (e.g. footfall in shops, revenue) the city is tracking to help understand whether the policy is doing what it was intended to do?
  • In many areas (e.g. mid-market), other factors might inhibit engagement: drug use, homelessness, petty crime, filth. How will this ordinance help with those issues?
  • Banning cafeterias will not magically increase engagement. Companies can and will cater in. I worked for many years at a scrappy startup in Mountain View right off Castro and I (along with many co-workers) chose to bring our lunch in.

Clearly, lot left to be desired here.


Finally, let's consider exactly how the ordinance is going to be implemented.

  • How would this even work in SF? There are many areas (near Southpark, most of Mission Bay as just two examples) where there are many offices but simply not enough lunch options. This is not a "free" market (highly regulated) and even if it were, it would not be able to react to all that demand overnight. Asking thousands of employees to just walk out in the hopes of finding lunch nearby in a timely fashion is just wishful thinking. This HAS to be a part of a holistic strategy, not a one-off.
  • What data was used to only apply the ban to new cafeterias (instead of applying it retroactively)? Obviously there are trade-offs, but again the onus is on the supervisors to make those trade-offs explicit. For instance, is there a model that shows the impact of this ordinance over next 10 yrs, vs. short-term benefits if it was retroactive?
  • Why is the ban restricted to food vs. other  perks that might impact engagement as well? Everything from parking, commuter benefits, health benefits, legal benefits, notaries etc etc. What was the process to draw the line on food?

In Conclusion

SF has a lot of problems – housing, infrastructure, transportation, public safety, education – just to name a few. SF also makes a LOT of money: revenues in FY 2017 were close to $6 Billion. It's unclear if this ordinance is focused on our biggest problems, if it's addressing those problems in the most effective way and whether the proposed implementation is objectively sound.

We should demand more data-driven decision making from our policy makers.

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