Blog / June 3, 2024 / Nate Pollak / UPDATED June 14, 2024

Catering licenses and permits

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    Baker taking buns out of the oven inside a catering kitchen

    If you’re considering opening a catering business, the economic forecast is in your favor. The sector as a whole is predicted to expand by 7.7% annually over the coming years—far greater than the average for all industries of just 0.4%.

    Before you can start serving your signature dishes at weddings, birthdays, and corporate events, however, you’ll need to obtain the proper documentation. Catering licenses and permits, including a business license and clearance from your local health department, are required to operate legally. 

    While every state’s exact requirements are different, this guide will detail the general credentials you need to run a catering business. It’ll also explore the potential consequences of operating without the correct licensure and offer some essential insight into starting your company quickly and cost-effectively.

    What documentation do you need to start a catering company?

    As mentioned, the exact permits you’ll need, their specific names, and the process for obtaining them will vary across the United States. Regardless, there are three general pieces of documentation you’ll have to secure before catering your first event in any state:

    A business license

    Catering isn’t a nationally regulated activity, so you’ll apply for your business permit at the state rather than federal level. 

    In California, for instance, the state delegates business permits to local governments, meaning you’ll have to apply through your city or county. The cost is anywhere from $15 to several hundred, and you’ll need to renew either annually or every other year depending on your area.

    Obtaining a business license is essential because:

    • It’s how you pay taxes in your jurisdiction—a necessary part of running any business
    • You open yourself up to fines for operating without one
    • They lend legitimacy to your business, especially when you’re just starting out

    Health department clearance

    Just like any brick-and-mortar restaurant, catering businesses are subject to the same health and safety standards covering all food preparation. Once again, food safety permits aren’t a concern of the federal government, so you’ll have to contact your local health department to get your hands on one.

    Let’s return to the Sunshine State for some insight into the process. The state leaves the issuance of Public Health Permits up to individual counties, so you’ll have to contact your local health department to schedule an inspection. 

    Once an inspector has the time to grade your food preparation facilities, they’ll make their way into your kitchen and ensure:

    • You have adequate handwashing stations, and your employees are actively using them
    • Your staff isn’t sick, and they understand the essentials of safe food preparation
    • You’re using proper hot and cold storage methods
    • Your countertops and other surfaces are clean and sanitary
    • Other basic hygiene and health standards are being met

    If your food prep area is up to snuff, the inspector will issue (or renew) your Public Health Permit. If there are violations, however, the inspector will generally give you the opportunity to fix them on the spot (if possible) or point them out and shutter your business until they’re remedied. Then, they’ll schedule another inspection within 14 days to ensure you’re upholding the health and safety code.

    The Department of Health can inspect your kitchen at almost any time, but generally only aims to do so:

    • Right before you first open
    • When they receive a complaint
    • Three times a year if you handle “dangerous” ingredients such as raw meat

    Complying with health and safety requirements is essential for any food service business. Failure can result in unsafe, contaminated meals making their way to your clientele and getting them sick. Not only would this be devastating to your business’s reputation, but it can also result in permanent closure. 

    A liquor license

    A liquor license isn’t necessary for all catering businesses but, if you plan to serve alcohol at your events, you’ll need to obtain one. Unlike business licenses and health permits, liquor is regulated by the federal government, so you’ll need to apply for a license through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

    Fortunately, applying is free and can be done quickly through the bureau’s website. Plus, the license generally lasts the lifetime of your business. 

    However, alcohol is also regulated at the state and county level. This means you’ll need to apply through local government entities to sell legally in your area as well.

    Failure to comply with federal standards and obtain a liquor license can result in fines of up to $100,000 per year. Local penalties vary across the country, but regardless, they can subtract a portion of your profits, too. To that end, be sure to adhere to all liquor laws at the state and federal levels.

    What are the consequences of not obtaining these licenses?

    As noted, the penalties for starting a catering business without the proper documentation vary depending on the severity of the misconduct. For instance, in early 2024, a South Carolina man was arrested and charged with ten counts of operating a retail business without a license when he failed to get the correct permits for his restaurant. 

    Ultimately, obtaining proper licensure is essential to the success and longevity of your catering business. 

    Get your catering company up and running faster 

    When you partner with CloudKitchens, you can start your catering business in just weeks, rather than months, as you’ll have access to one of our legal ghost kitchens on day one. You also don’t have to worry about the extra overhead that comes with opening a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. Instead, you can use that cash to obtain all of the licenses you need. 
    Wherever you’re operating your catering business, there’s sure to be a CloudKitchen near you. Reach out today to schedule a tour, and start your business on the right foot.

    Explore ghost kitchen locations across the US:

    DISCLAIMER: This information is provided for general informational purposes only and the content does not constitute an endorsement. CloudKitchens does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of any information, text, images/graphics, links, or other content contained within the blog content. We recommend that you consult with financial, legal, and business professionals for advice specific to your situation.

    Sources: 

    Grand View Research. U.S. Catering Services Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report By Type (Workplace/ Office Catering, Event Catering), And Segment Forecasts, 2023 – 2030. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/

    Statista. Global Industry Forecasts. https://cdn.statcdn.com/

    United States Small Business Administration. Apply for licenses and permits. https://www.sba.gov/

    Forbes. How To Get A Business License In California (2024 Guide). https://www.forbes.com/

    County of Los Angeles Department Of Public Health. REFERENCE GUIDE FOR THE FOOD OFFICIAL INSPECTION REPORT. http://lapublichealth.org/

    County of Los Angeles Public Health. Restaurant and Retail Food Inspections. http://ph.lacounty.gov/

    Los Angeles Times. A colleague’s suicide exposes a crisis among L.A.’s restaurant inspectors.  https://www.latimes.com/

    Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Applying for a Permit and/or Registration. https://www.ttb.gov/

    National Archives and Records Administration. PART 31—ALCOHOL BEVERAGE DEALERS. https://www.ecfr.gov/

    American Broadcasting Company. Charleston Co. restaurant and store operator charged with running business without license. https://abcnews4.com/