If you’re a new or aspiring restaurant owner, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that wading through the regulations governing restaurants can be complex and confusing.
Even just a few hiccups during the licensing and permitting process can cost you weeks or months – sometimes even more – and that comes straight off your opening date. Or, missing a crucial holiday season due to delays will make a material difference in your Year One bottom line.
But educating yourself upfront and getting tips on how to best streamline the process can have a significant impact on your first year in business and beyond.
But First, Ask for Help
Your architect and/or general contractor should be well-versed in the ins and outs of licensing and permitting, and if not they can likely recommend someone to guide you. Because the process for restaurants – versus a retail store for example – can be particularly intricate, you’ll want to work with someone who has extensive experience in the foodservice industry.
Mid-sized or larger cities might have “expediters” who specialize in ensuring all of the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted to get your approvals in a timely fashion. Check with your GC or architect for a referral.
Time is always a factor; in the end you’ll pay for the delays in the form of additional fees/fines, lost revenue or both. But the biggest consideration? The sooner you open the sooner you start making money.
Or – Do It Yourself (DIY)
If you would prefer to go it alone, it’s worthwhile to invest the time upfront to determine what you’ll need to do and the associated approval times. Preparation is key as you’re narrowing down your locations and beginning the construction portion of your project.
Each municipality will have different regulations, so while what you did for your last location could be a loose guide, every municipality is different, and you learn more each time you go through the process.
Here are some tips to help make the process run more smoothly:
Confirm your Municipality and Start Researching
Start by reaching out to the building department in the city you’re building in; provide your business address to confirm you’re in the right municipality. You might think your new business is part of a certain city, but you’ll want to be sure you’re within the city’s limits before you start digging in.
Once that is confirmed, begin with an online search – look for your city, state + keywords such as Certificate of Occupancy, building permit, health department and business license. For some municipalities the entire process can take place online. But in many cases an in-person visit to the government office is beneficial.
Meet with your City Representatives Early and Often
Your communications with the government entity should begin early- even as you search for a location. The office you’re working with will have specific requirements that need to be included when you submit your plans, and that information is helpful to know as you’re in development instead of adding it later. The need to add extra detail and resubmit plans has the potential to delay your project start.
Most city offices will be amenable to setting up a meeting – you’ll want to ask for the building or business development department. They will share in your excitement (who doesn’t want to know what new restaurant is coming to town!). Let them know your vision and ask what you can do to prepare. This is when you can start getting a sense of what paperwork and fees will be required, and this initial meeting will open those important lines of communication.
When you go to the office, be sure you’re asking the right person the right questions. You’ll need to learn about the correct order for submissions (which department needs to review the plans first), where to submit which plans, and what permits will be required. The right guidance here can quite literally change the opening date of your restaurant.
Zoning, Permitting and Health
There are generally three parts to the process: zoning, permitting and health. For zoning, there might be an architectural review or zoning board involved and you’ll need to consider the timing of those meetings. For permitting, some cities will require separate building and fire permits. Finally, for restaurants, a health department permit will be required. The order matters so be sure you ask about that when you meet with the city.
Have your Plans ready
In an ideal situation, you will turn everything in at once, so your plans can go through approvals concurrently. If you turn in your architectural plans first, but your plumbing plans aren’t ready yet, then you’re a week behind on that aspect of the process. If you’re able to turn in all your plans to all the right departments – fire, health and building – at the same time, you’ll save a lot of back and forth.
Don’t be afraid to follow-up. If someone from the government office is out on vacation, or your contact’s responsibilities have changed, your plans could sit. Stop into the office when you can, check the status online, and stay on top of where things stand. The information you need might not always be provided upfront- always ask, “What am I not asking?” and “What else do I need to know?”
Additional Licenses and Permits
Industry-specific licenses and permits are commonplace, and restaurants are no exception. A food service license is a must and you’ll likely also need an employee health (or food handler’s) permit from your city’s government office. As an example, the St. Louis County Department of Health posts Instructions for Opening a New Food Establishment.
Think through everything you’ll need – from a liquor license to a pool table license– to get your doors open. You might need a resale permit, dumpster permit, a building health permit, a valet parking permit, a sign permit and more.
This is where asking broad questions upfront really makes a difference. In some cases, you might be able to open your doors and then secure certain permits or licenses – such as a liquor license – afterwards.
Some municipalities (but not all) will give you a demo permit, so you can start wrecking before you have your permit in hand. This way, you can get a jump start and discover anything that might be hiding inside the walls before you’re onsite starting construction. Sometimes the municipality will also allow your general contractor to get started on anything that isn’t structural (no beams, exterior walls, etc.) so something like tearing down interior walls can be approved in advance. Take advantage of those bonus days where you can to get you ahead on your project- often there’s a fee associated, but it can be worth the head start.
The Certificate of Occupancy is the golden ticket to get your doors open. If you’ve been down this path before, you know the excitement associated with this achievement. You and your partners have worked hard to get to this point. Now it’s time to open your business! Congratulations!