Starting a Catering Business in California

Key legal issues to think about before you start a catering business in California.

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Starting a catering business in California has its own set of legal considerations. These include choosing the proper business entity, obtaining licenses and permits, dealing with health and safety, creating policy statements and contracts, getting adequate insurance, and dealing with employees.

To learn about other California business opportunities, see Nolo's section on Starting a Business in California.

Choosing the Business Entity

While you could operate your catering business as a sole proprietorship or partnership, you should probably consider using a legal form that protects you from personal liability, such as a corporation or a limited liability company. Catering generally involves being in other people’s businesses and homes on a regular basis, dealing face-to-face with significant numbers of people eating food that you have prepared, and employees engaged in a lot of physical activity. This increases the likelihood that a person could be injured, or his or her property damaged—in which case you would want your catering business, not you personally, to be responsible for any liability.

Learn more about choosing a business structure.

Licenses and Permits

Generally speaking, all catering businesses must obtain some form of permit from a city or county health authority in order to operate. The details will vary depending on the health authority involved. California law also requires an on-duty catering employee or manager to have state food safety certification.

You may be asked to provide various types of information with your health permit application, such as:

  • a copy of your state food safety certification
  • a copy of your menu
  • a statement of when your kitchen or commissary will be open
  • a floor plan of your kitchen or commissary with indications of all sinks, equipment, and storage space
  • a description of your safe food handling practices.

If you intend to serve alcohol as part of your catering operation, you will also need to obtain a special permit, known as a caterer’s permit, from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, as well as licenses for each event you cater at which you serve alcohol.

Health and Safety

Because catering is all about providing people with ready-to-eat food, it is subject to significant regulations regarding food health and safety, and more specifically to the California Retail Food Code. Just a few of the many dozens of matters the Code covers are handwashing, timing and temperature for food storage and cooking, ventilation, liquid waste, employee storage areas, and floors and other surfaces.

With the retail food code in mind, you can expect regular monitoring from your local health department. Local health authorities generally have a lot of latitude regarding what they can inspect, and health department inspections can cover many aspects of your catering business. Inspections may cover not only the food itself, raw and prepared, but also refrigeration systems, cooking equipment, waste disposal, and many other areas.

Apart from state regulations regarding the health and safety of restaurant workers, the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) also has a variety of regulations relating to, among other things, eye and face protection, hand protection, and walking-working surfaces.

Policy Statements and Contracts

Different customers may have different ideas about exactly what services your catering business will provide. It is in your own interest to make clear in advance—in writing—what you will and won’t do for your clients. If you have a website, you should post your policies there. And, regardless of whether you have a website, you should provide a printed document containing the policy information to all of your clients before you reach an agreement and begin work.

For example, if you cater in people’s homes, you should indicate such things as:

  • who will purchase the raw food
  • where the food will be prepared
  • if food will be prepared in a client’s home, requirements for adequate waste disposal
  • pricing of various items
  • payment policy
  • cancellation policy
  • food storage service policies

Many of these same types of rules would also apply to catering to businesses.

Beyond a general set of rules, it is also useful to work with each individual client to create a written plan for the specific services to be provided.

Policy statements aside, keep in mind that in order for a contract for services to be legally binding, (a) you and your client must agree on what the contract is for (there must be a “meeting of the minds”) and (b) there must be an exchange of value (also known as “consideration”—in the case of a catering business, usually the exchange of catering services, including food, for money). If the services involved will be completed in less than a year the contract need not be in writing; however, a written contract is always safer. You should consider drafting—or having a lawyer draft—a standard contract that you can modify for individual clients.

To learn more about policy statements, business contracts, and related matters, see Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business, by Fred Steingold (Nolo)

Insurance

There are particular risks associated with catering, such as employees slipping and falling on your premises while preparing food, diners or employees getting hurt from hot liquid or broken glass, or someone becoming seriously ill from the food itself. These are on top of more generic business risks such as fire, theft, or other sources of property damage or personal injury.

Try to work with an insurance agent who has previous experience writing policies for people involved in preparing and serving food. For property coverage, try to make sure that all business property of any importance, from plates to stoves, is fully covered. For injuries to people, make sure you have an excellent general liability policy. This should cover not only spilling boiling coffee on a diner, but also damages from someone who becomes gravely ill from eating the food you have prepared. In addition, make sure you have proper vehicle insurance to cover yourself and any employees while traveling to and from your clients’ businesses and homes.

Employees

Most catering operations have at least a few employees and, in many cases, there can be relatively frequent turnover. You should inform yourself about basic employment law issues such as illegal discrimination, workers compensation, and how to handle the hiring process. With regard to hiring in particular, learn how to:

  • create a useful job application that does not include illegal questions
  • check references or make other preemployment inquiries, again without violating privacy laws or otherwise seeking illegal information
  • ask interview questions that are both useful and legally permissible.

Also, keep in mind that there are some employment laws that may be specifically relevant to catering businesses, such as minimum wages for tipped employees, as well as rules regarding various training and certifications related to food handling and preparation. Many of the training and certification rules are addressed in Chapter 3 of the California Retail Food Code, which covers Management and Personnel.

A good resource for general employment issues is The Employer’s Legal Handbook, by Fred Steingold (Nolo). Also, many key employment laws are administered through the Department of Labor, and there are a variety of informative webpages within the Department of Labor website.

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