Starting a catering business in Texas 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.
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.
With extremely limited exceptions, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) requires all "food establishments" — which includes caterers — to obtain a permit from the appropriate health authority. This either will be a city or county health department, or, in those cases where there is no local authority responsible for issuing the permit, the DSHS itself. Permits are issued for two-year terms; fees, which vary based on the gross annual volume of sales, range from $250 to $750.
You will need to have at least one on-duty employee who is a certified food manager, and you may also need employees to obtain food handler cards. In order to become a certified food manager, a person must pass a DSHS-approved certified food manager examination, which can be taken as part of a certification training program at a test site or online. The certification is valid for five years. If you obtain your food establishment permit from a local health authority as opposed to DSHS, that same local authority may also require employees to get food handler training. There are various ways to acquire this training, including online.
If you intend to serve alcohol as part of your catering operation, you will also need to obtain an appropriate permit from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). There are several types of liquor permits. Depending on your particular circumstances, you may need to pay for a separate permit for each catering function where you provide alcohol. Additional information is available online at the TABC's website.
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 DSHS's food establishment rules. Just a few of the many dozens of matters these rules cover are:
With these rules in mind, you may be subject to monitoring from your local health department (or, if there is no local inspection authority, from the DSHS). Health department inspections can cover many aspects of your catering business, including 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:
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)
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.
Most catering operations have at least a few employees; moreover, 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:
Keep in mind that there are some employment laws that are specifically relevant to restaurants, such as minimum wages for tipped employees, as well as rules regarding various training and exams related to you and your employees.
Information regarding food handler certification is available on a page of the DSHS website. Limited information about both federal and state regulations in such areas as equal employment, safety, wages, and labor posters for Texas employers is available on the Texas Wide Open For Business website.
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.