Mountain View Voice

Opinion - July 19, 2013

Time for Google to step up to the table

A group of disgruntled North Bayshore restaurant owners who say the free chow at Google is forcing them out of business have exposed the downside of a company providing on site what most employees used to buy from local merchants.

The restaurants, including Falafel and Kebab, Cucina Venti and even Michael's at Shoreline all say they have suffered a significant loss of business since Google completed purchases of many nearby buildings that used to house hungry lunchtime customers. Now, with Google kitchens serving up free meals, Shoreline restaurants are in dire straits and nearly bankrupt, the owners say.

Talks between the restaurant owners and Google have taken place, but the company has balked at providing what the owners see as the only solution — Google paying for its workers to eat away from its free food lines. So far, the company has only offered to help advertise the restaurants on campus, which did not prove satisfactory to the restaurant owners. City Council member Mike Kasperzak and Chamber of Commerce director Oscar Garcia were involved in the talks, but apparently could not broker a deal, which means we are likely to see a substantial decrease in the number of restaurants in North Bayshore, as Google continues to apparently ignore its fabled motto, "Don't be evil."

It remains to be seen if Google, which has worldwide annual revenue of more than $50 billion, will recant and decide to give its Mountain View employees the option of eating off campus, perhaps by using a Google Wallet app on their phones. Such accounts could easily be tracked and limits could be set. According to the restaurant owners, Google balked because it could not control the food in local restaurants (not organic) and that taxes would be an issue.

Loss of sales tax revenue, although not significant, should motivate the city to step up its support for Google to find a way to fund off-campus meals. Just imagine if Google leased all the office buildings in Mountain View (a preposterous and unlikely idea) and filled them with free food for all employees. Such a development could make a major dent in the vibrant Castro Street restaurant scene that is fueled now by hundreds of non-Google high-tech employees who work in the city.

When tech companies first began providing food to their employees, the idea was viewed as just another quirk of the high-rolling, venture-capital-funded start-up wave that was sweeping the Valley. No one dreamed of companies the size of Google providing such substantial benefits as they raced to attract and keep the software engineers that kept their stock afloat.

But now, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story, the IRS is looking into whether the runaway perks should be taxed, like other perks such as use of a company car. We doubt if such a ruling will happen, but in Mountain View, Google and other high tech firms should take a hard look at how their food lines and other on-site perks impact small, neighborhood businesses. As Google gobbles up more and more office space in the city and provides more services in-house for its employees, it can have a major impact on the small firms that took root long before Google or other high tech firms started providing employees with all the comforts of home while at work.

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