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Getting into catering is a great option for passionate cooks and managers. Not only do caterers get to work with customers to dream up their perfect menus, but they get to be a huge part of what makes their celebrations feel celebratory.
Starting a catering business also has its perks, because you get to choose which clients you want to work with and on which days, so taking time off can be easier. You’ll also have a better idea of how much revenue is coming in in any given quarter, because events are almost always booked in advance — and often partially paid in advance.
Whether you’ll be catering red carpet parties, weddings, and baby showers, or even just office lunches, you’ll need to ensure you have all your licenses in order to run a catering business in California.
Like any other food business, you’ll need several licenses and permits issued by statewide and local organizations, which we’ll get into below. In order to serve alcohol, you’ll need a full liquor license, as well as a special Caterer’s Permit, administered by the California Alcoholic Beverage Control – plus one-off event permits called Catering Authorizations for every event you host.
We’ll get into all the details about Caterer’s Permits, how to get them, and what other licenses you’ll need to run your catering business.
How to start a catering business in California
Choose a catering business model
Catering companies are distinguished by what kinds of events they cater, as well as what kind of facilities they use to prepare food and plan for events.
Types of events to specialize in:
- Large celebrations like weddings, quinceañeras, and bar/bat mitzvahs
- Conferences, where you’ll need to provide multiple meals over the course of days to thousands of people
- Medium-size events like engagement parties, retirement parties, and office parties
- Small events like baby showers, birthday parties, and meetings
Types of catering facilities:
- Owning a commercial kitchen, prop storage space, and office
- Renting a commercial kitchen, prop storage space, and office
- Renting a commercial kitchen, prop storage space, office, and storefront for takeout.
- Renting a shared commercial kitchen, and renting your own prop storage space and office
- Operating out of a home (which can require additional or different permitting)
Make a catering marketing plan
In catering, every event is a live marketing opportunity. If all the guests are delighted by your food and your service, they’ll be likely to consider your services for their own events. Plan to invest time in posting event photos and videos across social media, as well as running local ads online and in local publications.
Hire a great team
As mentioned above, catering work is ideal for hospitality workers looking for a more flexible schedule than they’d get in restaurants. Hire a team of prep cooks, cater waiters, dishwashers, bartenders, and even event managers if you do major events.
Invest in the best technology
If you sell food at a storefront or on the go, you’ll need a great point of sale platform. Look for a point of sale system that can also help you with catering preorders, and that can help you track inventory and run payroll for your team.
What are the types of catering licenses in California?
Liquor License Type 58 - Caterer's Permit
This license allows caterers to be able to serve beer, wine, or spirits at offsite events. It is an additional license, which means you can only apply for it along with your full liquor license — typically a Type 41, 42, 47, 48, 51, 51, or 83. Getting a Caterer's Permit then allows you to apply for Catering Authorizations, which are mandatory for every event you plan to serve liquor at. Learn more on the Caterer’s Permits page of the ABC website.
It’s not enough to just have a liquor license and a Caterer's Permit. To actually use your Caterer's Permit and serve alcohol at events, you’ll need a Catering Authorization for each event, submitted within 30 days of the event but not later than three days before the event. To get one, fill out Form ABC-218, and you may need to submit an additional form, Form ABC-253, where you draw a diagram that shows where you’ll be holding the event.
Liquor License Type 83 - General Caterer’s
This license is for established, very large catering companies that cater over 500 events per year. This permit allows you to serve alcohol at no more than 25% of your yearly events. You must also have had an onsite license at a bona fide eating place for at least one year to qualify for it. You’ll also need to get the Type 58 — Caterer's Permit, plus Catering Authorizations for every event.
This additional permit lets existing license holders, like restaurants or bars, sell beer, wine, and spirits in a location adjacent to the licensed business for a limited time. What makes it different to Type 58 is that the permit is only valid to be used adjacent to the existing business — not at any other kind of event venue.
Other licenses and permits for caterers
Like all other food businesses, caterers will also need:
- A public health permit from their local (city or county) public health authority. This permit shows that the health department has reviewed the facility and deemed it safe to use.
- A business license. Administered by your city or county, this license registers a business with their jurisdiction and allows them to operate legally.
- An EIN (Employer Identification Number). This permit registers you with the IRS and allows you to employ (and pay) a team.
- A California seller’s permit. This permit, administered by the state, allows businesses that sell tangible goods to charge sales tax.
- Employee food service licenses to be held by all employees to prepare, handle, and serve food. These permits show that each employee has undergone food safety training that prevents food-borne illness.
Learn more details about each of these additional licenses and permits in our guide to Restaurant Licenses and Permits in California.
How much does a catering license cost in California?
A Caterer's Permit is classified as an additional permit, not a standalone one, so if you apply for your Caterer's Permit at the same time as your primary liquor license, you’ll only have to pay the fee for the primary license.
The most common way that this works would be applying for a Type 48 Liquor License, whose application fee is $17,355 (starting in 2023), plus a Caterer's Permit, which you wouldn’t have to pay more for.
How much does a Catering Authorization cost in California?
Catering Authorization fees are charged in addition to Caterer's Permit fees (and other liquor license fees), and depend on the estimated number of attendees at the event. It is charged for each day that you plan to sell alcohol at the event (for example, a three-day music festival would require that you pay the fee threefold.
For events less than 1,000 people, the authorization costs $100 a day.
For events with 1,000 – 4,999 people, the authorization costs $325 a day.
For events with 5,000 people or more, the authorization costs $1,000 a day.
For invitation-only events, pursuant to 25600.5, the authorization costs $220 a day.
What are the transfer fees from person to person?
Business owners sometimes need to transfer ownership of their liquor license(s) to a business partner, or someone they’ve sold the business to. This transaction incurs additional fees, which vary depending on the type of person to person liquor license transfer. To learn more about each type of transfer, see the application fee table for person-to-person transfers on the ABC website.
The guide for how to open a catering business, including a business plan template and checklist — plus how to open a catering business from home.
What is the process for getting a catering license in California?
As mentioned above, you can only get a catering license as an additional permit to another liquor license. The most common process is applying for a Type 48 (or 47, 41, or 41) License and filling out an additional form, ABC-239, which lets you apply for the Caterer's Permit.
If you follow all the steps correctly, and the ABC finds no issues with you or your business, your licenses will be approved, and you’ll receive your liquor license and Caterer's Permit. You can start using them right away.
Here’s the full run-through of getting a liquor license plus a Caterer's Permit. For additional details about applying for various types of primary liquor licenses in California, read our guide to Liquor Licenses in California.
Prepare your California liquor license documents + Form 239
The list of ABC forms you’ll need to fill out varies depending on which license you’re getting, and what kind of business entity you are: an owner, an LLC, a partnership, a corporation, a limited partnership, or a trust. Learn about the requirements for each application type at the ABC New License Application page.
To add on an application for a Caterer’s Permit, you’ll need to also fill out ABC Form-239.
On top of the ABC forms, you’ll need to provide more information about yourself and your business. For example, you will need to bring your state-issued ID, a driver’s license, or passport, as well as a copy of your conditional use permit or a receipt that shows your application has been submitted (contact your city or county planning department). You may also need to show documents related to the financial health of your business, including bank statements, loan papers, financial statements, gift letters, real estate papers, and more.
Go to the ABC office closest to you
To get your Caterer's Permit, along with your primary liquor license, you must show up in person to your closest ABC office, documents and filled-out forms in hand. There is no online application process.
Notify the public
After submitting your application in person, applicants must notify the public about your intent to secure a liquor license.
ABC investigates and decides
As part of their investigation of you and your business, the ABC will notify local officials to check that granting you a liquor license (and Caterer’s Permit) won’t constitute a public nuisance or contradict zoning laws.
The ABC will then search for any red flags about your or your business, as outlined below, and they might also investigate the location of your proposed business. Then, they’ll do a final application review and make their decision. If you’ve been approved, you’ll receive your liquor license and Caterer's Permit and be able to start using them, and applying for Catering Authorizations. If your application has been denied, you can initiate a hearing and appeals process.
What are some common challenges in the application process?
Common reasons for being denied include the following:
- A disqualifying police record
- Being under 21
- Application fraud
- Zoning and location issues
- Tenancy issues
- High crime in the area
According to ABC, the most common issues that delay the approval of liquor license applications include:
- The premises is not ready to open due to construction
- Fee mistakes or omissions
- Errors on documents, or document omissions
- Liens placed against escrow by The Board of Equalization, the Franchise Tax Board, the Employment Development Department, local cities and counties, or local health departments.
You can learn more about the whole liquor license application and approval path on the ABC page on the liquor license application process.
How long should you expect the Caterer's Permit and liquor license process to take?
The ABC liquor license application review process typically takes between 40 and 55 days, but if any issues come up, it can extend to 175 days or longer.
When to start the liquor licensing process
In case of delays, start your liquor license plus Caterer's Permit application 4-6 months before you plan to open.
Reminder: for every event where you plan to serve alcohol, you also will need to apply for an additional Catering Authorization with Form 218. Apply 29 days before your event so you can be sure there will be no delays or license-related crises on the day of the event.
Get your permits in order and prepare to delight your clients
Every business starts with a business plan, and catering companies are no different. When opening a catering company, write up a catering business plan that shows what kinds of events you’ll cater, how many staff members you’ll hire, where you’ll work, and how you plan to stand out from the pack. This will help you secure additional funding for your catering business, and enable you to start getting your licenses and permits in order.
Start your permitting processes 6-8 months before you plan to open. Since a liquor license is far from the only permit you’ll need, and it can take up to six months, build in additional time for all your other permits, too.
Then, the fun begins. You can start hiring and training all your employees, and building a catering marketing plan that’ll help you reach more customers every year.