Let us in! Private office cafeterias may yet be banned in future San Francisco offices. Or — more likely — a far less extreme scenario will come to pass.

Don’t confuse a negotiating ploy with finished legislation. Don’t confuse politics with policy.


[dropcap]Aeons[/dropcap] ago, back in 2016, a trio of left-leaning city supervisors proposed a hefty “tech tax,” the legislative equivalent of hoisting up Big Tech by its pant cuffs, shaking, and funneling the resultant pile of cash into beneficent causes such as homeless services and affordable housing.

Well, that generated a lot of copy. It was designed to, after all. And both professional journalists and regular folks fervently thumb-typing onto their phones began questioning how this was all going to work.

But this legislation was not designed to work. It was simply designed to garner media attention and embarrass Big Tech and its San Francisco government allies. As such, parsing the nuances of this proposed legislation was a fool’s errand. But serious and well-meaning journalists did this, regardless.

Diligently reporting on the inner workings of legislation that isn’t supposed to work actually misinforms the public. Context matters and, it turns out, there’s a difference between politics and policy.

Fast-forwarding to the present, odd-couple Supervisors Ahsha Safaí and Aaron Peskin, with the support of the city’s Golden Gate Restaurant Association, have introduced legislation that would preclude future office buildings from including private cafeterias where free food and other amenities keep techies indoors, toiling away at all hours (it would not affect extant cafeterias, and future offices could still bring in catering or subsidize their workers’ food). The ostensible goal is to shunt cloistered employees out-of-doors to purchase their lunches at local businesses, patronize other local establishments, and coexist with the rest of the city.

Well, this generated a lot of copy. It was designed to, after all. And, once again, both professional journalists and outraged thumb-typers parsed it all, questioning how it was all supposed to work.

But this legislation was also not designed to work. Not like this.

Shortly after its introduction, its principals explicitly confirmed to me that this was merely an initial gambit, an opening salvo meant to spur discussion and end up in a different, milder place.

Or, as one City Hall source put it, the ultimate goal is to have the cafeteria ban “massaged into something less extreme and into a program of the sort that already exists where companies are handing out vouchers.”

We live in a high-tech world: This would not be hard to do. Employees’ smartphones can be loaded up and recharged like Clipper Cards, and could be geotagged to only work within, say, a quarter mile of an office. Not coincidentally, Peskin and Safaí’s opening press conference was held in a mom-and-pop restaurant that benefits from a program of the sort that already exists, in which workers are presented food vouchers by their company.

So, to put it bluntly, Peskin and Safaí are engaging what is called “negotiating.” Opening hard and settling back to where you wanted to be has been a tried-and-true strategy dating back to the dawn of civilization when our forebears haggled over the price of gourds in open-air bazaars. Most recently, erstwhile Supervisor Scott Wiener elevated this to an art form. The former litigator eschewed the 400 meetings/blue ribbon panel/kumbaya approach and simply launched bruising “opening offers” which, in his own words, “forces the other side to negotiate.”

Context, again, matters. There is a difference between politics and policy. And, in this case, the former has been reported on as if it’s the latter.

Take it outside, boys (and girls).

A goodly number of Internet denizens have reached out to Ahsha Safaí via e-mail or social media to kindly inform him his city planning ideas are stupid and that he’s as dumb as a rock.

Let the record show that Safaí obtained a Master’s in city planning from a small Northeastern university called Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That doesn’t put him on a higher plane than the rest of humanity, but it is something to consider before sending him a derogatory meme. 

There is no sign informing members of the general public that they must be so tall to ride the ride when it comes to commenting on San Francisco public affairs. That’s for the best; even naive and uninformed people can have great ideas — and weighing in on your government is your right. Even if you’re one of the guys who sings during public comment

That said, word to the wise: Your elected leaders notice when reams of negative invective are heaped upon them via the Internet when they jostle companies backed by heaps of venture capital dollars — but in-person interactions skew overwhelmingly positive. And, you’re not going to believe this, but they give more credence to those who inhabit the real world than the virtual one.

Additionally, your elected leaders have grown weary of complaints that their legislation does not address myriad city problems it is not intended to address. As such, your elected leaders are not impressed when complainants accuse them of wasting time crafting such legislation, and thereby neglecting to devote every waking hour to solving this city’s most pressing issues. To wit: a particular sect of online commenters cast Peskin as some manner of San Francisco Rasputin who was using this legislation to obscure our city’s pressing woes of housing, homelessness, affordability and transit.

Well that would be a neat trick: The legislation in question was actually crafted by Safaí.

And then, just like that, in the midst of being pilloried for neglecting the city’s pressing issues, Peskin’s office last week announced the conclusion of an intense bargaining session with Uber and Lyft in which the rideshare titans would acquiesce to a future per-ride surcharge, creating a potential $30 million yearly revenue stream — specifically directed to city transit. Mayor London Breed is on board — as is Assemblyman Phil Ting, who will write the enabling state legislation. This was, in short, some complex, multi-party negotiating. “It turns out that legislators can pat their heads, rub their bellies, and negotiate with Uber and Lyft,” sums up Peskin. “To do well at this job, you have to run, catch, and hit.”

Criticisms of Safaí and Peskin’s cafeteria proposal are legitimate. The devil is in the details, and being a trained city planner, as Safaí is, or an autodidact, as Peskin is, does not mandate deference. It’s also a legitimate question as to whether the Wiener-like aggressive opening gambit might have led to more rancor than any “less extreme” vouchers-or-something compromise might be worth — if such a compromise is even reached after so much initial animosity.

But anyone who had been claiming that our legislators are unable to multitask and are hiding from this city’s pressing issues — and used this cafeteria legislation as a case in point — is not yet tall enough to ride the ride.

Both Safaí and Peskin claim that one of their goals was to start a conversation. That’s what you’d say if starting a conversation is all you manage to do. But it’s hardly a wild notion that a conversation is warranted: Some 7 million square feet of new offices could be conjured into being by the inchoate Central SoMa Plan, and it’s a legit concern that dead ground-floor space and insular tech employees will lead to an unwanted facsimile of mid-Market (where tech outfits were treated to tax breaks to “revitalize” the area and, instead, ensconced themselves within self-contained fortresses).

A city regulating tech cafeterias is a splashy news story, but a city regulating land use is not — it happens every day. San Francisco is a process-heavy realm that likes to talk and talk — and talk — but sometimes talking is warranted.  

What kind of city do we want to be? What does it mean to be a San Franciscan? That’s food for thought.

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21 Comments

  1. Techies are to ML what illegal immigrants are to Fox News so of course Peskin can count on the support of his friends at MEDA. This is nothing more than a jab intended to rile up the left by lambasting our longstanding scapegoat for all San Francisco’s ills and give him the opportunity to say “I took away their free lunch”. If Peskin were actually interested in starting a conversation about helping local businesses he’d start by closing the cafeteria he has access to every day at San Francisco’s city hall. But of course, that wouldn’t be the real point of this mean-spirited legislation, would it?

    1. Shaun —

      You continue to equate Mission Local with MEDA when, I repeat, we rent a room in their building. At the going rate.

      Regarding the legislation, it doesn’t take away any outfits’ free lunch. It’s not retroactive and it wouldn’t prevent companies from bringing in catering or handing out vouchers. What’s more, it’s only zoned for “office” structures and pertains to cafeterias not open to the public — so City Hall doesn’t fall under it. You and I and everyone else are welcome to eat at City Hall. But, finally, the inner workings of the legislation aren’t all that important because it’s merely an opening gambit in a negotiation. That was the point of the article you’re commenting on.

      Finally, while Peskin can defend himself, if you think he’s not spending money in local businesses, you’re truly not paying attention.

      JE

      1. Going rent seems to be fawning articles covering anything MEDA does, in which case where do I sign up? It sucks that talented, solution-oriented politicians like Chiu and Wiener go off to do better things and we’re left with the parlor tricks of Peskin and the various Campos clowns who couldn’t get elected dog catcher outside of their respective zip codes.

  2. Look like tactics from “The art of the deal” are being used. Are SF leaders starting to take after Trump?

    1. I don’t think Donald Trump invented the aggressive opening offer, John! See Wiener, Scott.

  3. Joe,
    You are a great reporter, and you usually give some insightful views into local politics. One thing that has irked me about the dialogue in this debate is that is puts Safai/Peskin/restaurant owners in one corner, and it puts tech companies in the other, and the narrative is the traditional culture war trope. I think a HUGE undercovered narrative is what do the employees of the food companies that staff the tech corporate kitchens think, and what do the staffs of the restaurants (not the owners) think? The people who will be most impacted by this IMO are the working class folks who staff corporate kitchens, why not cover some of their stories?

    1. Tom —

      Thanks for the kind words. It is my understanding that of the 51-odd private cafeterias in the city, only one is a union shop (Airbnb. It’s staffed by UAW-affiliated employees, which is perceived as a shot at the Local 2). And you have it right: Nearly all of the people working in the cafeterias are contracted out from third-party services. Clearly, precluding future cafeterias would affect the number of people disseminated by the third-party entities, but it’s not as easy to gauge as if companies were making hires themselves (they are not). But that all figures to be part of the ongoing discussion. Harming low-income workers is not the intended goal of this legislation, so, hopefully, it’s not an unintended one.

      JE

      1. Have you had a chance to interview any working class tech cafeteria workers? Do they like their jobs? Did they used to work in restaurants and move to tech food? If so why? If they are treated better and paid more, maybe the conversation should move to opening up the cafeterias to everyone, likewise if they’re exploited and treated poorly, maybe the Safai/Peskin legislation would materially help people. There has been too much listening to people like the owners of Kagawa-Ya Udon, who complain about bad business, and not enough listening to the employees. I’m genuinely interested to hear their views on the brouhaha, and like I said earlier, your voice tends to bring these stories to life.

  4. Safaí is neither stupid nor dumb as a rock. However, introducing stunt legislation is. We pay Supervisors to create policy, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that they not waste everyone’s time on policy that is intentionally broken, particularly when they create further division and anger in the process. We have enough hot air in this city, and we shouldn’t reward further efforts to divide people instead of solving problems.

    No, proposed cafeteria legislation does not mean the city is ignoring housing and homelessness and all else that ails us, but political resources, and reporting resources, are finite. Could the time reporters, including yourself, have spent on this have been devoted to any other issue, perhaps one involving actual policy rather than stunts? And if this is really about the issue of preventing dead ground floor space in the Central SoMa Plan area, maybe the story should be framed around that, and a deeper look at the broader causes of the commercial vacancy problem throughout the city, rather than the “OMG ban cafeterias, down with tech” headlines we actually got.

    1. Zach you are 100% right! I worked for the city for years, and every time a new bad event or issue popped up, certain supes would instantly react and spin their wheels to do some gambit like this, that they knew wouldn’t work or wouldn’t pass, but would make it look like they were addressing the problem. Hello, Mission Moratorium anyone?? Every time they pulled these stunts, HUNDREDS of city staff hours would have to be spent working on their proposals, whether we liked it or not. Time and resources that would otherwise go towards working on real work to help the city improve.

  5. Peskin – its a perception issue. He just knows how to annoy people who are just going about their job and throwing fake bombs to see what sticks is all good and all but its all about perception and the media sniffs the mood and stirs the pot and insinuates that Peskin. Safai measure actually will be a policy that will be rolled out at the next board meeting. That’s when the vitriol against Peskin really heated up. I feel bad for Peskin. He has a tough job and has built a lot of bad blood among tech workers who feel he is out to get them even if its just perception and not reality. So throw those bombs Peskin… see what sticks but don’t be mad when the tech folks, too busy working to make enough to pay their rent cuz their isn’t enough housing to say what they feel in your face, take to an easier mode of communication.

    1. Don’t feel bad for Peskin. He has significantly contributed to the problems we have here. He pulls the wool over his supporters eyes, but at every turn he has impeded growth and development and helped create the insane housing shortage we have in this city, which is the root cause of most of our problems. He deserves every bit of criticism and vitriol that he gets

  6. Another well known and ancient truth about negotiating (you’ll find it in any negotiating textbook) is that if your initial offer is ridiculous and offensive it will risk ending the negotiation entirely or at least offending the opposing parties and poisoning the negotiation. Not a good place to start. And if your only evidence that it is is Scott Weiner, well, then you should stick to smaller topics.

    I don’t like the the patriarchal state that the progressive left of SF promotes but I also don’t want empty ground floors downtown. I see there may be a need for something here. I wish these Supervisors had been thoughtful in their approach. Too bad.

    1. Matt —

      I’m not defending this move, I’m attempting to explain it. It is quite possible that this is a too-aggressive opening gambit and may poison the mood moving forward. You should re-read the part with Scott Wiener, who was brought in as the “most recent” example. Click on the link about earlier ones. I think it’s worth it.

  7. Joe, You brought up this point, ” it’s a legit concern that dead ground-floor space and insular tech employees will lead to an unwanted facsimile of mid-Market (where tech outfits were treated to tax breaks to “revitalize” the area and, instead, ensconced themselves self-contained fortresses).” but it seems that it’s a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” problem.

    Cleaning up the mid-Market area is not the businesses’ responsibility. In fact, the fortress mentality is due to the failure of the city administration to enforce existing laws. I would think that having clean and safe sidewalks would result in tech workers enjoying our beautiful city.

    1. I agree with this – per usual, the city is unwilling to take the steps needed to make the streets appealing to pedestrians and local businesses. Nobody wants to eat a sandwich next to a guy covered in feces shooting up heroin on the sidewalk.

  8. By what standards are people like Peskin and Safai being evaluated? What constitutes success or failure in their job?

    Is there a maximum level that market rents can rise over a 3 year period?

    Level of homeless population?

    Cleanliness level of streets?

    New housing units built?

    Average traffic level and commute times?

    Median income growth?

    These officials seem extremely unaccountable. Instead of these types of endless political stunts, why don’t we come to an agreement on what they are supposed to achieve and then have them report back to the community on their progress on a quarterly basis.

    These problems seem to get endlessly worse, yet nobody holds them to account.

  9. Let’s get this straight: incumbent resturaunts want to be shielded from competition from corporate cafeterias (which exist in NYC) and this is a worthy goal because of the need for streetlife. 2 trips per worker per day is nothing. What’s the real aim?

  10. Peskin et. al. should stop grandstanding and do their jobs including taking real action to address filthy SF streets, the gross homeless situation and lack of effective housing solutions.

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