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How to Open a Restaurant in South Carolina

Dahlia snaiderman

Dahlia SnaidermanAuthor

It can take over a year to open a restaurant in South Carolina — or even longer. Like any major bureaucratic business process, there are overlapping requirements that every business owner will need to check off in the right order to get it all done.

Whether you want to open a new hand-pulled noodle place in Charleston, a fried chicken food truck in Columbia, or a takeout sushi restaurant in Greenville, there’s lots to do. Read on to learn about the 10 most important stages of opening a restaurant in the state of South Carolina.

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Opening a Restaurant Checklist

So many things go into opening a restaurant. Use this free PDF checklist to set your new restaurant up for success.

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How to start a restaurant in South Carolina

1. Pick a restaurant concept

What’s going to make your restaurant unique? Before you write your business plan, you’ll have to decide on a type of restaurant to open. You probably have dozens of ideas bouncing around in your head, but it’s important to answer the following questions to narrow down your concept.

For example, Pakistani restaurant Ma’am Saab created a menu that highlights the flavors that remind co-owners Raheel Gauba and Maryam Ghaznavi of their childhoods. “You may not be able to understand what the menu says at first,” shared Gauba with Eater Carolinas, “But at first bite, it’s going to feel like an old friend. It’s going to feel familiar to your core. Because the food is made with love. The flavor profile just hits a side of your palate that recognizes that this is true comfort food. We are taking that very seriously.” Check out the photos of their space to see how they’ve brought the whole concept together from the menu to the restaurant itself.

Answer the following questions to help refine your concept:

  • Will you specialize in one cuisine? Are you an expert in that cuisine, or will you hire one? What menu items will be your star items?

  • What types of ingredients will you need, and where will you source them?

  • What’s the competition like in your area? How will you stand out?

  • Full-service, counter-service, or takeout only? How many staff members will you need?

  • Who’s your target market? What demographics do you plan to appeal to?

  • Will your restaurant be a small business and stay that way, or do you plan to expand and franchise?

  • What style of service will your front-of-house team offer?

  • Will you serve alcoholic beverages?

  • How will you price your menu?

  • What will the physical business look like? What kind of space will you need?

Outline your mission and values — and how they’ll impact your brand

As a restaurant owner, you have the opportunity to set the tone of what it’s like to work at and visit your restaurant. Write down your company mission and a few listed team values you’ll want to embody. This big-picture thinking will help guide your decisions as you hire staff and build your brand.

Then, choose a business name and start thinking about your brand (or work with a designer to do so!). How will you represent your food, cuisine, and values with consistent aesthetic decisions? What colors, fonts, and shapes will draw the eye to your business — and instantly convey your vibe to potential customers?

2. Create a restaurant business plan

All South Carolina restaurant businesses can benefit from writing out a business plan. A business plan has two main functions: it will help you present your business idea to potential investors and other sources of funding, and it can function as a roadmap to opening day.

First, choose a type of business entity. Restaurateurs can pick from one of five business structures common in the US: LLC (limited liability company), sole proprietorship, partnership, S corporation, or C corporation. Learn about the benefits and drawbacks of each structure in our guide on restaurant business entities.

Then, choose a profit structure. Will you, the owner, collect all the profits? Or will you profit-share with employees? If you get investors, will you give them a stake in the business and the profits? You’ll need to work with a lawyer and accountant to draw up all the necessary paperwork and contracts.

Now you’re ready to start writing your restaurant business plan. Include the following sections:

  • Executive summary, including your restaurant name, business type, and what experience you have as an entrepreneur.

  • Company overview, including your business model

  • Industry analysis (target market, location analysis, competitive analysis)

  • Marketing plan (how you’ll stand out from other food establishments and get people in the restaurant from the beginning)

  • Business model and service model

  • Operations plan (staffing needs, customer service policies and procedures, payroll plan, which restaurant POS you’ll get, which vendors and providers you’ll use for produce, laundry, and more, which types of business insurance you’ll get)

  • Financial analysis (investment plan, financial projections like break-even point, expected cash flow, expected costs)

  • Your contact information

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Restaurant Business Plan Template

No matter where you’re at in your restaurant ownership journey, a business plan will be your north star. Organize your vision and ensure that nothing is overlooked with this free template.

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3. Secure Restaurant Financing

It costs anywhere from $95,000 to $2 million and beyond to open a restaurant in the US, so there’s a high chance you’ll need to secure some external funding to cover those major startup costs. New restaurants can find funding through SBA loans, lines of credit, crowdfunding, personal loans, bank loans, or alternative loans. Learn more about each of these options (among others), including application info and time to access cash, in our guide to restaurant financing and loans.  

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Restaurant Opening Calculator

This calculator lays out some of the fundamental financial costs of opening a restaurant, so you can start planning and bring your dream restaurant to life.

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4. Choose a South Carolina Restaurant Location (and Renovate and Decorate!)

Choosing the right location is one of the most important decisions you’ll make throughout this process. A great restaurant location may cost more, but it can generate way more business in the long run, compared to a harder-to-access, mediocre location.

Do some digging about your potential neighborhood before you sign on any dotted lines. Conduct some market research and learn about the competing restaurants nearby.

Buying, leasing, or building restaurant space are all available options, but they each come with unique challenges and benefits. Whichever option you choose will impact how long your opening process is, as well as how much startup capital you’ll need.

Here’s some of the factors South Carolina businesses should focus on when evaluating a restaurant space:

  • Target market and ideal customer profile

  • Real estate market conditions

  • Community population

  • Size of the site

  • Previous tenants and their experiences in the space

  • Zoning and previous type of usage of the space

  • Foot traffic and transit proximity, or car traffic and parking

5. Apply for South Carolina Restaurant Licenses and Permits

South Carolina restaurants will need to obtain state-specific licenses and permits before they’re able to formally start their business. Some licenses are federal, others are administered by the state, and others are given by your county or city.

The list below is not exhaustive — check with your local restaurant association and your local government to find out what your specific restaurant will need. You can also follow the South Carolina Business One-Stop (SCBOS) guide to learn more about the requirements.

Some of the licenses and permits you may need to open a restaurant in South Carolina include:

  1. Get a Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN), which connects a new business to the IRS.

  2. There’s no state-issued business license in South Carolina, so contact your local government and refer to this list of counties to learn about local business license requirements.

  3. Register your business name and business type with the South Carolina Secretary of State's office (unless you’re opening a sole proprietorship or general partnership).

  4. Apply for your Retail Sales Tax License through the South Carolina Department of Revenue by using MyDORWAY, so you can pay sales tax and use tax. Check with your local county if there are additional tax requirements for your business.

  5. Apply for a Retail Food Permit through the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Learn more at the DHEC Retail Food page.

  6. Apply for a certificate of occupancy or Certificate of Construction Completion through your county’s buildings or inspections division. You may need to submit a plan review and will need to get the space inspected for health and safety compliance. Here’s the process for Charleston.

  7. Get a liquor license from the Alcohol Beverage Licensing division of the South Carolina Department of Revenue, which you’ll need if you intend to serve alcohol at your food business.

  8. South Carolina food law says that all restaurant employees need to have a food safety certification (or food handler card) completed, and there needs to be at least one certified food safety manager on staff. These food safety licenses show that either a manager or each staff member has been trained in the proper food handling protocols that prevent foodborne illness.

6. Develop your Menu and Beverage Program

Write out all the ideas you have for menu items and drinks that fit your restaurant concept, and then whittle down the menu to a manageable number of options (ideally with plenty of overlapping ingredients for cost, inventory, and waste-reduction purposes).

You can go about completing this task alone, or you can work with your chef or bar manager if you’ve already hired them. Once they’re onboard, run your menu and beverage options by your staff, as they’ll be the ones preparing these items every day and may have valuable suggestions about efficiency and technique.

Create a few drafts of your menu and make sure the final product is unique, full of delicious and appealing items, and that your menu makes your restaurant stand out from the competition.

Consider also how you’ll price your menu items, and how you’ll design your menu. Learn more about menu design and menu engineering to make the most of your menu.

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Restaurant Menu Templates

Use these menu templates as a starting point for your menu design or to give your menus a refresh.

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7. Hire and Train Restaurant Staff

At every restaurant, staff are the backbone of the business. That’s why it’s important to create a work environment that will keep them engaged and supported from the very beginning.

There are dozens of restaurant positions to hire. To find the right people, tap into your network from previous restaurant jobs, post on restaurant industry job boards, post in neighborhood Facebook groups, and recruit new grads from area culinary schools.

And if you’re able to provide good compensation and meaningful restaurant employee benefits, including health insurance, you can keep turnover to a minimum. Yes, it’s a major expense — but turnover is expensive too, and damaging to the operational flow of your business.

Here are some resources from Toast to help you attract, hire, and retain restaurant employees:

To learn even more, go through our video course on hiring and retaining restaurant employees.

8. Invest in Equipment and Restaurant Technology

In addition to the typical restaurant equipment checklist, new restaurants should strongly consider investing in the following restaurant tech systems to help their business run as efficiently as possible — and to help you keep track of the business’s health.

With easy-to-access KPI dashboards, you can get insights on the changes that will help you grow your revenue, manage your team more efficiently, and delight your customers.

Some of the tech to consider for your restaurant can include:

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Restaurant POS Comparison Tool

A free, customizable Restaurant POS Comparison Tool to research and compare point of sale systems in one Excel spreadsheet or editable PDF.

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9. Create a Restaurant Marketing Plan

Marketing channels like social media and email marketing are powerful ways for restaurants to reach new customers, engage their existing customer base, and turn first-time visitors into regulars.

Learn more about building a restaurant marketing plan with our marketing plan template, our social media guide for restaurants, and our guide to restaurant email marketing.

You can also host events and collaborations with other chefs, like Charleston-based Bintü Atelier hosting a special ticketed dinner in collaboration with Chef BJ Dennis — where they’ll combine West African and Lowcountry flavors to create a unique dining experience.

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Restaurant Marketing Plan

Create a marketing plan that'll drive repeat business with this customizable marketing playbook template and interactive calendar.

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10. Host a Soft Opening and Grand Opening

Once your team is hired and trained, your space is decorated, your menu is set in stone, and your walk-in is stocked, it’s time to run a soft opening. Invite all your friends and family (and your staff’s community too), and run through service for the first time. Ask for feedback, and adjust any processes that hit snags during service.

Then, you’ll be ready to start planning and advertising your grand opening! Set a date, start posting on social media, send out flyers, and get ready for a busy, exciting night.

You’re ready!

To keep track of everything you need to do within a year of opening your new South Carolina restaurant, check out our time-bound restaurant opening checklist below.
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Opening a Restaurant Checklist

So many things go into opening a restaurant. Use this free PDF checklist to set your new restaurant up for success.

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DISCLAIMER: This information is provided for general informational purposes only, and publication does not constitute an endorsement. Toast does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of any information, text, graphics, links, or other items contained within this content. Toast does not guarantee you will achieve any specific results if you follow any advice herein. It may be advisable for you to consult with a professional such as a lawyer, accountant, or business advisor for advice specific to your situation.