Food culture in San Francisco needs room to grow 

When it comes to finding a place to eat in San Francisco, numerous factors can be considered before heading into a restaurant — what type of food is served, what kind of drinks the establishment has, how long the wait might be. Minuscule differences between restaurants, such as whether an establishment has 10 or 11 chairs, probably would not make or break a dining decision.

But under The City’s current system of restaurant regulations, such small differences involving seating and other items — such as the use of a toaster oven — can be deciding factors for whether business owners are able to open or alter an eating establishment. Currently, there are a dizzying 13 definitions in the San Francisco planning code that apply to restaurants.

This labyrinthine planning system has sprung from a patchwork of smaller changes that were likely well-intentioned as stand-alone revisions. But now, the larger system has become a major roadblock to new and innovative restaurants in a city known internationally for its cuisine.

San Francisco already has a higher minimum wage compared to surrounding cities, and The City’s payroll tax and health insurance program can also put San Francisco at a disadvantage when businesses are looking at possible new locations in which to open. The last thing San Francisco needs is any unnecessary, additional obstacles to opening a new restaurant or business.

That is why city lawmakers should get behind Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposal to simplify The City’s planning code for restaurants. Instead of maintaining 13 classifications for restaurants, Wiener’s proposal would whittle the list down to three types of restaurants: bars, restaurants that serve alcohol and restaurants that don’t sell alcohol.

Neighborhood controls would remain in place under the proposed legislation, so the classification changes would not result in a citywide free-for-all of businesses rushing to open eateries, or demolish the look and feel of The City’s commercial corridors. Businesses would still need to attend the proper hearings before the Planning Commission in order to secure permits.

Wiener’s proposal merely loosens the reins to allow restaurants greater flexibility to open and survive in the Bay Area’s competitive dining ecosystem. For example, Seth Bowen told The San Francisco Examiner that he wants to open a specialty butcher shop called Graze in San Francisco.

Under current rules, he would only be allowed to serve prepared food in 500 square feet, or one-third, of his desired location, which he says is not enough for his needs. Wiener’s proposal would eliminate such micromanaging restrictions to allow for innovation in the restaurant and food-service business.

San Francisco’s neighborhoods are well-served by having a variety of shops. The rules that govern individual industries, however, should not be so complicated and stifling as to deter businesses from opening in San Francisco.
Wiener’s proposal to simplify the restaurant business is one to which we should all raise a glass and toast.

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