San Francisco’s hotly debated proposal to ban employer-paid cafeterias was sent back to the Planning Commission Dec. 10 following new amendments designed to encourage businesses and their workers to patronize small businesses.

Employer-paid meals are part of the local ecosystem at companies such as Google, Twitter, and Facebook—and employees expect the free food perks. The restaurant-supported proposal to ban new or expanded employer-paid cafeterias could hit employee recruitment hard in a city that had a 2.2 percent unemployment rate in October.

The proposal first introduced last summer called for an outright ban on any new employer-paid cafeterias. it was designed to get workers out of their employer-paid food cocoons and into spending time and money at their neighborhood cafes. “Our desire was to think about how we change that dynamic and that culture in a positive way,” co-sponsor Supervisor Ahsha Safaí told a Board of Supervisors committee Dec. 10.

The latest changes put forward by a committee of the city’s board of supervisors boil down to requiring a conditional use permit if the in-house facility has a ventilation system for cooking of meals. Snickerdoodle-stuffed breakrooms and pantries that provide basic snacks for a quick nosh wouldn’t be required to get a conditional use permit.

Catered meals brought in for office workers would be exempt from the permitting process. Existing facilities would be grandfathered in under the revised proposal but may not be expanded or reinstalled if abandoned.

Employers could use a network of small businesses and vendors to source food for the office. Salesforce.com, Inc., for example, has a couple of locations in San Francisco where limited-use cafes operate in a partnership with the company, Safaí said.

Among the considerations for the board’s Land Use and Transportation Committee was the impact upon existing eating and drinking establishments in the area, including but not limited to whether meals in the proposed employee cafeteria would be free or heavily subsidized.

Spring Return

The amendments mean the proposal returns to the city’s Planning Commission, which in October recommended a revised proposal that would permit new employer-paid cafeterias if such facilities were opened to the public or employers gave vouchers to workers for use at local cafes.

Testimony and continued comments by cafeteria workers who value the steady, regular, daytime hours working at employer-paid kitchens were among the most compelling comments and helped sway the conversation, Safaí said.

The proposal would return to the Land Use & Transportation Committee after a hearing before the Planning Commission within 90 days.

Plastic Ban, Expanding Access

The amendments would require the permit process to consider if the proposed cafeteria has committed to using reusable foodware and packaging for on-site and takeaway dining. San Francisco last summer banned single-use plastic, including items made with fluorinated chemicals that can leach into food.

Other considerations for a permit would be whether employers will subsidize employee meals outside the proposed cafeteria, and whether cafeterias restrict usage only to staff employees or encourage the hiring of local workers, Supervisor Jane Kim said.

“Living in a city that has the fastest growing income gap between the rich and poor, the tech companies are exacerbating that very important challenge that our city is facing and they have to be just as responsible for addressing it as government is as well,” Kim said.