restaurant manager and chef looking at licenses

To become a restaurant owner is not as simple as great food and drinks. It’s actually a whole lot of paperwork to get started.

Restaurant regulations and permits vary from state to state, but one thing is the same no matter where you live: if you want to start a restaurant, you’ve got to get some licenses out of the way or risk penalties.

Here are the minimum licenses and permits needed to open a restaurant.

Learn more about business, food, liquor, and food permit licenses

Check Out Our Guide to Licenses and Permits

Business License

To open a restaurant, even before you have a restaurant business plan fully flushed out, you’ll want to obtain a business license. This license gives you permission to operate your restaurant. Put simply, a business license is a permit issued by the government that allows an individual or company to legally conduct business in a specific geographical jurisdiction. This could be a state, city, or county. In the United States, every business must have a license in order to operate legally. restaurant licenses and permits

Depending on where you live, the process for how to get a business license differs. The one thing that is the same no matter what though is the first step. In order to obtain a business license, you will be to find out where you need to get your business license from. And you will need a business license from the city where your restaurant will be located. That means the license has to be based on the address of your restaurant.

Luckily, you can check the US Small Business Administration (SBA)’s website to find out the state and city-specific rules for obtaining a business license.

Of course, you’re also wondering about the cost of a restaurant business license, right? The business license cost is around $50 for the application, but depending on your state, other costs vary from as much as $25 to $7,000.

Learn More About How To Get A Business License for Your Restaurant

Food Service License

You need a food service license if your business serves food. Which means if you’re a restaurant owner reading this article, you have no way around this license. In many states, however, the type of licenses you need depends on the type of restaurant you have. For example, dine-in restaurants might be licensed by the number of seats they have. Take out or food trucks actually still require a food service license, but it might be called a food vendor’s license instead.

Food service licenses are issued by your state health department – which means they’ll also vary depending on where you’re located. You will have to start by reviewing the food vendor’s application requirements for your specific state with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

They also will require an in-person visit from the health department. They’ll be ensuring you are in accordance with restaurant food safety regulations – and they’ll be back to check in on that from time to time, too. The process for how to get a food service license is pretty simple: you can apply online with the name and location of your restaurant.

Pizza chef and business owner

You are also wondering about dollars and cents. What does a food service license cost? Food service license fees are often based on the classification and size of the restaurant, as well as your location, not too dissimilar from other types of restaurant licenses and permits. As a rule of thumb, you should expect the cost to range from $100 to $1,000.

Learn More About How To Get A Food Service License

Liquor License

Your food service license won’t cover the liquor you intend to serve at the bar – and no amount of bartender tricks will change that.  And although alcohol laws will vary from state to state, attempting to open a bar without a liquor license is going to lead down a road of penalties, fines, and shut doors. You’ll want to start this process early if you intend to serve alcohol as liquor licensing authorities usually have various levels of licenses you can apply for.

The type of license you obtain will be determined by the type of liquor you intend to sell as well as where you are located.

Each state has its own Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) Board. This is where you are going to start your process. This agency is in charge of regulating the sale of alcohol. You will want to determine how to contact your state’s control board and then set up a conversation to understand your state’s laws and the process of how to get a liquor license in your specific state.

how to get a liquor license

A good background to know is that there are two main types of liquor licenses: on-license and off-license.

  • You will need an on-license liquor license if the liquor you sell is intended to be consumed on the premises of your business – for example, a bar or restaurant.
  • You will need an off-license if the liquor you sell is intended to be consumed off the premises – for example, a liquor store or grocery store.

As a bar or restaurant owner, you’ll always be looking to obtain an on-license liquor license. Nonetheless, most states have several classes of liquor licenses so you’ll want to go over all of these requirements.

Learn More About How To Get A Liquor License

Food Handler’s Permit

There are a wide array of restaurant labor laws you’ll have to follow, but an important first step is a Food Handler’s Permit. This is also often referred to as an Employee Health Permit, and it ensures your staff has completed a food safety certification. This is arguably the most important one not just to you, but to your staff as well. Plus, it is a legal necessity for everyone. This permit ensures your restaurant meets very important regulations for food sanitation, storage, protection, and preparation.

The 4 Most Important Restaurant Licenses You Need Before You Open

On top of this, your workers will also need to obtain a permit to ensure they’ve completed a food safety certification. Believe it or not, obtaining this restaurant license is actually fairly easy compared to the rest. But it is still another one you’ll want to start the process for early since your entire staff needs to obtain one.

restaurant licensing and permits guide cover

When all is said and done, to obtain even just one of the proper licenses and permits can cost as much as 10,000 dollars. Luckily, the only resource you’ll need to open your doors with the right licenses and permits is here.

Get The Guide

Every state varies in its requirements for food handler permits and the courses required to earn the certification. You’ll want to check with your Department of Health to learn the state required certifications and courses.

Learn More About How To Get A Food Handler’s License Here

Employer Identification Number (EIN)

While we’re on the subject of employees, you’ll also need an employer identification number. An EIN is assigned by the IRS and it is essentially a tax ID number. You can apply for an EIN through the IRS website, or by fax, phone, or mail.

waitress tying on her apron

The IRS website lists three important steps that you’ll need to take to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) online.

  1. Step 1: Determine Your Eligibility
  2. Step 2: Complete the Online Application
  3. Step 3: Submit Your Application

Fun fact, the IRS only issues one EIN per day. You can apply online to get an EIN and it’s free – so that’s the silver lining.

Learn More About How To Get An Employer Identification Number (EIN)


11 Other Licenses and Permits Your Restaurant Might Need

If those are the main restaurant licenses and permits you need to open, what other licenses do you need? Well, that could vary by your state, but it also all depends on your restaurant and your needs. Here is a list of the other permits to keep in mind (even the ones you didn’t know existed).


1. Live Entertainment and Music License

Unfortunately, you can’t just book your buddy’s band or plug your smartphone into the speaker system and let the good times roll. Not legally at least. Bars need a license from performance rights organizations such as BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC to avoid copyright infringement, which can cost between $250 and $500 for background music. Rates vary further depending on if the music is live, recorded, the number of nights music is playing per week, and whether there’s an entrance fee, amongst other factors. For live music, you’ll also need to check for additional safety and zoning permits, which vary by city and state. Playing copyrighted music without a license can cost anywhere from $750 to $30,000 in fines.

2. Pool Table License

If you want pool tables, certain states and counties require a pool table license, which costs an annual fee of $10 to $15. This can limit how many tables you’re allowed, and the hours of operation.

3. Dumpster Placement Permit

A dumpster placement permit allows you to have a state dumpster outside your kitchen to dispose of food waste. These permits have varying stipulations and costs depending on where the dumpster is placed, the bar location, and the dumpster’s size.

4. Sign Permit

Before you put up your carefully designed restaurant sign, you’ll need a permit. While a sign permit for your restaurant may seem like a minor detail, when you think about how important it is in the grand scheme of your restaurant design, it’s best to make sure it’s squared away.

When it comes to your sign: sizing, location, and even lighting is determined by your city, not your state. This can make things a bit trickier to navigate.

restaurant signs outside

First things first: What do you need a sign permit for? Sign permits may be required for:

  • Permanent restaurant signs
  • Ground and tract signs
  • Signs erected on walls
  • Awning signs
  • Signs in shopping centers or at multi-tenant buildings
  • Internally illuminated signs
  • Special events signs

Be prepared to pay, too. The cost may range from $20 to $50.

Learn What You Need To Know About Restaurant Sign Permits Here

5. Certificate of Occupancy

6. Sales Tax Permit

7. Resale Permit

8. Building Health Permit

9. Employee Health Permit

10. Seller’s Permit

11. Pool Table Permit

12. Valet Parking Permit


Restaurant License Resources, by State

The theme of restaurant licenses and permits, as far as how to obtain them, has been: “it varies by state.” To make your life easier, we’ve compiled a list of all 50 state food service codes and regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so you have a place to start your hunt for licenses.

AlabamaDepartment of Public Health Division of Food, Milk & Lodging
AlaskaDepartment of Environmental Conservation Food Safety & Sanitation Program
ArizonaDepartment of Health Services Food Safety & Environmental Services
ArkansasDepartment of Health Food Protection Program
CaliforniaCalifornia Department of Public Health Food Safety Program
ColoradoColorado Department of Public Health & Environment Retail Food Program
ConnecticutDepartment of Consumer Protection, Food and Standards Division
ConnecticutDepartment of Public Health, Food Protection Program
DelawareDepartment of Health & Social Services Office of Food Protection
FloridaDepartment of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Food Safety
FloridaDepartment of Business and Professional Regulations, Division of Hotels and Restaurants
FloridaDepartment of Health Food Hygiene Program
GeorgiaDepartment of Agriculture Food Safety Retail Program  
GeorgiaDepartment of Public Health Food Service Program
HawaiiDepartment of Health Sanitation Branch
IdahoDepartment of Health & Welfare Food Protection Program
IllinoisDepartment of Public Health Foods, Drugs & Dairies
IndianaDepartment of Health Food Protection Program
IowaDepartment of Inspections & Appeals Food & Consumer Safety Bureau
KansasDepartment of Agriculture Food Safety & Lodging
KentuckyCabinet for Health & Family Services Food Safety Branch
LouisianaDepartment of Health Retail Food Program
MaineDepartment of Health & Human Services Health Inspection Program
MaineDepartment of Agriculture Consumer Food Inspection Unit
MarylandDepartment of Health & Mental Hygiene Division of Food Safety
MassachusettsDepartment of Public Health Food Protection Program
MichiganDepartment of Agriculture Food Safety & Recalls
MinnesotaDepartment of Health Food Safety
MinnesotaDepartment of Agriculture Dairy & Food Inspection Division
MississippiDepartment of Health Food Safety Division
MississippiMississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce
MissouriDepartment of Health & Senior Services Food Safety
MontanaDepartment of Public Health & Human Services Food & Consumer Safety Section
NebraskaDepartment of Agriculture Food Division
NevadaDepartment of Health & Human Services Environmental Health Services
New HampshireDepartment of Health & Human Services Food Protection
New JerseyDepartment of Health & Senior Services Food & Drug Safety Program
New MexicoEnvironment Department Food Program
New YorkDepartment of Agriculture & Markets Division of Food Safety & Inspection
New YorkDepartment of Health, Food Handling, Preparation, and Storage
North CarolinaDepartment of Health and Human Services Food Protection and Facilities, Division of Public Health
North DakotaDepartment of Health Division of Food & Lodging
OhioDepartment of Health Food Safety Program
OhioOhio Department of Agriculture Food Safety Division
OklahomaDepartment of Health Consumer Protection Division
OregonDepartment of Human Services Foodborne Illness Prevention Program
OregonDepartment of Agriculture Food Safety Division
PennsylvaniaDepartment of Agriculture Bureau of Food Safety & Laboratory Services
Rhode IslandDepartment of Health Office of Food Protection
South CarolinaDepartment of Health & Environmental Control Division of Food Protection
South DakotaDepartment of Health Office of Health Protection
TennesseeDepartment of Health Division of General Environmental Health
TennesseeDepartment of Agriculture Regulatory Services Division
TexasDepartment of State Health Services Food Establishments Group
UtahDepartment of Agriculture Division of Regulatory Services
UtahUtah Department of Health
VermontDepartment of Health Food & Lodging Program
VirginiaDepartment of Agriculture & Consumer Services Food Safety & Security Office
VirginiaDepartment of Health Division of Food & General Environmental Health Services
WashingtonDepartment of Health Food Safety Program
West VirginiaDepartment of Health & Human Resources Public Health Sanitation Division
West VirginiaDepartment of Agriculture
WisconsinDepartment of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection Division of Food Safety
WisconsinDepartment of Health Services Food Safety & Recreational Licensing
WyomingDepartment of Agriculture Consumer Health Services Section

Now that you’ve got all of that under control, why not think about the fun stuff like restaurant menu design and your restaurant decor ideas.

Written by   |  
In a perfect world, Theresa would spend her days reading good books and writing all the time... and she'd own all the shoes her heart desired. When she's not on the hunt for shoes, you can find this Rhode Island transplant on the hunt for food that comes close to "Long Island". Her favorite? Caffe Dolce Vita in Providence's historic Federal Hill.