San Francisco Bay Area cities are cracking down on free food at Facebook and other tech companies

FacebookFacebook employees eat for free at the company’s headquarters.
  • Mountain View, a city in Silicon Valley, will not allow a new office development where Facebook is set to move this fall to have a cafeteria with free food for employees.
  • The restriction aims to increase business for local food retailers.
  • San Francisco, home to Twitter, is proposing a similar rule that would ban new workplace cafeterias for the same reason.

It’s no secret that Facebook employees love their office meals. On Instagram, there are countless photos of free meals, from sushi to tacos to coffee waffles, served at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

But come this fall, when the tech giant moves to a new office complex in Mountain View called the Village, that perk will no longer exist.

That’s because the city prohibits companies from fully subsidizing meals in the Village, and the rule could spread to other Bay Area cities in the future. Free food is a popular perk at tech companies throughout San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

On Tuesday, San Francisco legislators proposed a similar restriction, the San Francisco Examiner reported. If passed, it would adjust zoning laws to ban new construction of on-site workplace cafeterias. (The ban wouldn’t be retroactive, however, so on-site food at companies like Google and Twitter would still be available.)

The Village is part of the larger San Antonio Center development, which features several restaurants open to the public.

Mountain View passed the project-specific requirement in 2014, but as the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the decision attracted little attention at the time because the offices’ construction still had years to go.

Facebook declined to comment on the ban, but a representative, Jamil Walker, said the company found the new location attractive because of its proximity to public transit, housing, shops, and restaurants.

In both San Francisco and Mountain View, supporters of the restrictions argue that the cafeterias take away business from local restaurants and caf├ęs because they discourage workers from leaving their offices.

In San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighbourhood, local food retailers have especially struggled to gain foot traffic because of the prevalence of free workplace meals, according to Gwyneth Borden, the executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, an organisation supporting the rule.

“Restaurants often provide the anchor to get people on the street, and while they’re out they patron other retail,” Borden told Business Insider. “While there will always be competition for the food dollar, it goes without saying that it’s hard to compete with free.”

Twitter, which as of 2015 employed about 2,000 people in San Francisco and is one of the biggest tech employers in Mid-Market, opened its headquarters in the neighbourhood in 2012. Since the new rule wouldn’t apply to existing on-site cafeterias, it would affect Twitter – and other tech companies like it – only if it decided to expand its footprint in the city. Twitter declined to comment on the proposed legislation.

Some San Francisco residents have argued on Twitter that the legislation wouldn’t achieve what it intends, since it would technically ban only on-site cafeterias, and companies could still strike deals with off-site caterers to feed their employees.

Meanwhile, supporters of the proposal argue that local brick-and-mortar retailers are hurting and that any changes would help them. Borden added that several restaurateurs who have tried to revitalize the Mid-Market food scene have closed in recent years. And Eater has pointed out that it can take hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get a restaurant off the ground in San Francisco.

“With food being provided for free … there’s no competition in terms of choice, nor a reason for employees to leave their building,” Borden said. “Perhaps that’s great social engineering to get employees to work longer hours and never leave their offices, but it doesn’t do much to support the city around them.”

This latest proposal from San Francisco follows the city’s recent call for tech companies to help with rising housing prices, which are exacerbated in part by the local tech industry’s growth. In November, the city of San Francisco is set to vote on a business tax for large companies that would go toward projects that aim to address homelessness.

Mountain View will have a similar initiative on the November ballot. There, the tax would go primarily toward transit projects, and a sliver of the revenue would help finance affordable-housing developments.

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