Whether you’re opening a tiny beachside restaurant or a high-end restaurant that’ll work towards a Michelin Star, your restaurant will need to get all its paperwork in order long before you open your doors.
When opening a restaurant in California, you’ll need to get a variety of food licenses, as well as the rest of your California restaurant licenses and permits. Three of the most important permits that let you sell food to your community include the food handlers license, food facility health permit, and seller’s permit.
A Food Handlers License, also known as a California Food Handler Card, ensures that all employees are certified in the food preparation and handling procedures that prevent foodborne illness. A Food Facility Health Permit ensures that the restaurant space is set up with the equipment and processes that keep patrons and employees safe. Finally, a Seller’s Permit gets a restaurant registered to collect sales tax on their food and drinks.
Some licenses are administered by the state, and others are processed by the particular county where a business is set up, so requirements can vary from area to area.
We’ll get into everything you need to know about these food permits for California restaurants.
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California Food Licenses
Food Handlers License in California, also known as a California Food Handler Card
What is it and why do you need it?
A Food Handlers License, or a California Food Handler Card, is proof that an employee has completed the necessary training in order to prepare and serve food. The course and test covers how to safely store, cook, and maintain safe temperatures on all foods, plus more food safety rules.
How to get a food handlers license
These licenses are administered by each county, so it’s important to consult with your local public health authority to see what the process is like in your area. However, most counties in California fall under the California Food Handlers Permit process, which involves an online or in-person course and test. For the general California card, students must pass the test with 70% or higher.
San Diego, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties have their own course and test, and their own score requirements.
What are the food handlers laws?
Every new hire needs to obtain their food handlers license within 30 days of being hired. Food handlers cards are valid for three years, after which time they will need to be renewed in order for a business to stay compliant.
How much does a food handlers license cost?
California state law SB602 mandates that the food handlers test and license not cost more than $15. That way, everyone who works in restaurants can afford to get certified.
Food Service License in California, also known as a California Food Facility Health Permit
What is it and why do you need it?
A food facility health permit, which in other areas is called a food service license, ensures that the space your restaurant occupies is up to the safety standards of your city or county. This permit helps businesses provide a safe work environment and a safe guest experience.
How to get a food facility health permit
Food facility health permits are administered by the city or county where a business is operating, so the process will differ from place to place. Every new restaurant will need some form of a health permit, even if you’re taking over from an existing restaurant, because safety comes down to a lot of owner-level decisions — it’s not just about the bones of the building. For this reason, health permits aren’t transferable.
Depending on the situation (are you building a restaurant from scratch? Expanding an existing restaurant? Taking over and operating in an existing restaurant as-is?) you may need a food facility permit done through your county as well as a separate public health permit — here’s an example of food permit instructions from LA county — just click “Restaurants and Retail Food Stores”.
Some areas allow for you to apply online, but these permits typically require restaurateurs to submit their detailed plans for the space for approval. Once approved, they also require in-person inspections to ensure your space and processes are up to code. Once your business passes the final inspection, you’ll get your permit to open.
Be sure to check with your local health department to find out exactly what types of facility health permits you’ll need for your type of business, in your jurisdiction.
What are the food facility health permit laws in California?
For a restaurateur to turn a space into a food-serving facility, or modify an existing food facility, they will need to obtain a permit through their local authority.
How much does a food facility health permit cost?
The cost of a food facility health permit varies from county to county, so the costs vary. Here are a few examples of cost ranges for different counties. The cost of a permit for different types of operations also varies — a full-service bar may be different from a food truck. Some areas price the fee based on number of employees, while others price it based on number of seats and/or level of risk.
- LA County food service permit costs: $319-$1,438
- San Francisco food service permit costs: $900-$1,400
- Contra Costa food service permit costs: $700-$2,000
- San Diego food service permit costs: $790-$1,981
Food Seller’s Permit, or California Seller’s Permit
What is it and why do you need it?
All businesses looking to sell tangible goods subject to sales tax need to obtain a seller’s permit, including restaurants. Seller’s permits allow them to charge sales tax on their food.
How do you get a seller’s permit in California?
This permit is administered by the state, so restaurants can register for their seller’s permit online through the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.
What are the food seller laws in California?
Any food business will need a seller’s permit, as food items count as tangible goods sold, and they are subject to sales tax.
How much does a food seller’s license cost in California?
Applying for a seller’s permit is free, but the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration may require a restaurateur to pay a security deposit to cover unpaid taxes if the business eventually closes.
Get ready to bring your food to your community
Opening a restaurant in California takes months of active work — in some cases, it can take over a year. Getting your California restaurant licenses and permits, including all your food-related permits, should be done at least 3-6 months before you plan to open. Since some permits are city- and county-based while others are administered by the state, processing times can vary widely. Talk to your peers in the industry and find out how long they waited for each stage of the process, and keep tabs on your local administrative offices, as ongoing staffing and COVID-related issues can cause delays.
Some permits will need to be secured before you can move on to the next one, so follow the guidance of the excellent website CalGOLD (The Gold Standard For Permit Assistance) to ensure you’re getting everything you need to open a restaurant that’s compliant with all local laws.
Once you’re all done with your licenses, or at least while they’re all submitted and you’re waiting on processing and inspection timelines, you can continue figuring out two crucial steps of the restaurant opening process: securing funding and choosing your equipment and technology.
There are about a dozen ways that you can go about securing restaurant funding, like alternative loans, crowdfunding, SBA loans, and brick-and-mortar bank loans — but all of them will require an iron-clad restaurant business plan. You should have your business plan done even before you work on your licenses and permits, but continue updating your business plan as you move through the opening process. For example, once your permits are in progress, update the section on permitting to reflect the status of your licenses and permits.
And once you know how much money you’ll be working with, with what kinds of repayment terms, you can start thinking about how you’ll spend it: consider your staffing needs, decor, food and inventory costs, equipment needs, and, of course, the technology system that’ll tie it all together.
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