What License and Permits You Need for a Food Hospitality Business

Before starting a restaurant, deli, catering service, food truck, or other food service establishment, you’ll need various food hospitality business licenses and permits.

If you're thinking about starting a restaurant, deli, catering service, food truck, or other food service establishment, you'll first need to secure various food hospitality business licenses and permits. To protect the public and employees, food services face a host of licensing requirements at the federal, state, and local levels. The Small Business Administration can help you get a sense of your main licensing and permitting obligations with its Permit Me online tool. With Permit Me, you simply enter your city and state or zip code and select your business type from a roll down menu to determine what key licenses and permits you will need before operating your business. Aside from establishing your business entity, here are several major food hospitality business licenses and permits for you to address.

Obtain Relevant Tax Registration Numbers

Your food business should first obtain any required tax registration numbers. It is helpful to first acquire an Employer Identification number (EIN) from the Internal Revenue Service. Typically, you will need this number to pay your federal taxes, to apply for a general business license, and to register with your state, county, or city taxing authority. Once registered with the federal, state, and/or local taxing entities, your food establishment may then be subject to paying a variety of federal, state, and local taxes, such as income, sales and use, property, employment, and unemployment insurance.

Apply for a General Business License

In most states, you will need to initially obtain a general business license in order to operate any kind of business that provides goods or services to the public. Depending upon your location and the nature of your business, it varies whether a general business license must be obtained from a city, town, county, or state authority. In some instances, you may be required to obtain both a state and local general business license. Although the application forms may differ, general business licenses may require your name, contact information, nature of your business, type of business entity, any use of a fictitious business name, your EIN, your Social Security number, and proof of any relevant certifications in your food service field. Check with your licensing authorities to see if you may submit your license application online, by postal mail, or in person.

Acquire a Food Service or Safety License

Proper food storage, preparation, handling, and sanitation are essential to protect public health and safety. A food service business must obtain a food service or safety license from the relevant state, county, or city/town authorities, typically its health department. In some cases, you must complete a food safety certification program and be subject to on-site inspections in order to get and retain your food service license. It may be useful to certify several staff members to insure that a food safety certified individual is present whenever your business is in operation.

Seek Out Applicable Location-Based Permits

In developing your food service business, you may need to secure various location-based permits. First, it is important to determine that the location you selected is properly zoned for your food service business. If properly zoned, you may then decide to build or remodel a building for your new venture and will likely need relevant building permits. Even putting up a sign to let the public know about your food service business usually requires a signage permit as to the size, type, lighting, and location of your sign. These location-based permits are normally handled on a town, city, and/or county basis, so check with your local building or development authority.

Get Occupancy and Alarm Permits

Your local fire department will usually inspect your food service business to determine if your operation presents any fire hazards and meets appropriate fire safety standards, such as proper smoke alarms, sprinklers, and evacuation routes in case of fire. If approved, the fire department will normally issue an occupancy permit that indicates the maximum number of people, including patrons and staff, who may legally be allowed to be on premises at any given time. In addition, you may wish to protect your business investment with a security or fire alarm. You will need to contact your local police and fire department to secure the relevant permits.

Procure a Liquor License

Sales of alcohol may be an important part of your food establishment's bottom line. Liquor licenses may be expensive to obtain and renew and often only a limited number may be offered in your community. The requirements, costs, and availability of liquor licenses may vary depending upon your location and your planned liquor services. In some places, you may not be able to secure a liquor license until another licensor is willing to sell it to you or gives up their license to the relevant liquor control board. Different obligations and licenses may apply if you desire to offer a full service bar, serve beer and wine only, or simply allow patrons to bring wine with them to your business premises. Staff should be properly trained to avoid violating the terms of any liquor license and to prevent legal liability regarding serving patrons of your establishment.

Secure Relevant Entertainment or Broadcast Licenses

You may decide to liven up your food service atmosphere with live musicians, recorded music, or broadcast TV or radio programs. It is important to note that you may need a different license depending upon the nature of your proposed form of entertainment. For live music, you may need a local entertainment license to insure that your venue meets applicable rules intended to safeguard both the performers and general public. Musical works, radio programs, and TV broadcasts are copyrighted materials and you will need to obtain appropriate licenses to play or broadcast them from your cable operator or performing rights organizations, such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), SESAC, Inc., or BMI. You may want to check out each site's licensing FAQs for the basics on these licensing issues.

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