How to get a catering license: Official guide
Weddings? Nonprofit fundraisers? Business galas? Catering can be a great way to put your culinary skills to use, making someone’s special event memorable. You won’t need your own restaurant or much capital investment to get started. You don’t even need a truck. What you will need is a catering permit.
A catering license is a legal requirement, but it’s also a stamp of approval. In other words, your incense lets your clients know you have the proper equipment and food handling knowledge to meet food safety guidelines.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to what you’ll need to get your catering license before you start putting those pigs in blankets.
What is a catering license?
Officials in your County Health Department or Department of Agriculture may issue your catering license. But regardless of the department, a catering license is simply a permit to operate a legal catering business in your county.
A Permanent Food Service Business Permit is the same as a catering license in many locales. You simply indicate you’re opening a catering business and pay the appropriate fee. Costs can vary depending on the local health department’s fees, but also the type of food you’ll serve and the risks associated with your business.
Ultimately, your state’s Occupational Licensing Agency or Health Department will have the details on local requirements.
What license is needed for a catering business?
Catering services fall into two categories, and your needs will depend on how you want to structure your business.
You can choose to cook off-site and deliver food to an event location, like a hotel. That’s the norm for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and private events. There are 2 critical choices in this category:
- You can outfit a kitchen to your state’s commercial standards. You may need to remodel or find a location and apply for zoning permits.
- You can rent space from an inspected and licensed commercial kitchen called a commissary kitchen. Commissary kitchens abound in most urban areas, and they provide caterers, food truck owners, and retail food businesses with storage space for equipment, parking, and a certified place to cook. You can rent the whole kitchen yourself or rent time in a shared kitchen.
An alternative is cooking, plating, and serving meals on-site. On-site caterers typically partner with a venue to use their kitchen facilities and table settings.
Which you choose will affect your licensing process. For example, in Florida, an independent caterer who shares a commercial kitchen already licensed by the Florida Department of Health will be approved by that department. If the caterer shares a kitchen certified by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Division of Hotels and Restaurants will license the caterer. Work solely with a venue hotel? You’ll be considered an operator of a public food service and need a separate license.
The first step is deciding on your business model and finding the kitchen of your dreams.
While you’re deciding, stop by your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC). These U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) offices help would-be entrepreneurs navigate the permits and training required to meet your local legal requirements. Ask them questions like:
- Do my city, county, and state allow caterers to operate using a home kitchen? Some large states, like Florida, do not.
- What kitchen equipment and remodeling will I need to qualify?
- Can I rent commercial kitchen space locally that’s already inspected and certified? (This can be a commissary kitchen, a restaurant kitchen, a school, a place of worship, or a retirement home that might already have commercial kitchen space).
- What other licenses will I need to support my clients?
Other licenses you may need include:
- A state business license
- A local business license
- A separate catering license in every city where you serve food
- A commercial driver’s license
- A vendor’s license so you can charge sales tax
- Local food handler’s cards for all employees
- A Manager Food Service certification for you
- Serving alcoholic beverages? You’ll need beer/wine and liquor licenses and alcohol server training permits
- Additional licenses like a meat cutter’s license or a license for a temporary, non-private event when applicable
That’s when you may start to wonder, “How much is this going to cost?”
What are the costs associated with getting a catering license?
With multiple licenses needed, it is impossible to estimate the total local cost of licensing your new catering business. You may also require licenses on an ongoing basis, for example, for each public event where you might be serving alcohol or for each new county where a client wants to hold their event. It’s important to cook these fees into your business plan.
For your catering license alone, costs are more straightforward. For instance, in Florida, you’ll apply for a new catering license that requires you to complete a plan review for your kitchen, apply for a permit, and pass a licensing inspection.
Catering permits typically range between $100 and $1,000 without a plan review.
Here are a few fee examples:
|Los Angeles, CA
|New York, NY
|Catering/Food Service License
|$110 to $385
Catering licenses vs. catering business licenses
A catering license is often called a catering business license since it relates to your catering business. But it’s not a general business license.
Some states require you to establish your new business structure when applying for a catering license. You can be a sole proprietorship, LLC, or corporation. A catering license permits your company to make food safely, but it does not establish any other rules for your business.
You likely need both a catering license and a business license. You should get your state business license in many states before applying for a catering license. You’ll get a business license from the State Department of Revenue which registers your company with departments like Employment Security and Labor & Industries.
What’s the difference between a catering license and a restaurant license?
In most states, health departments issue catering licenses using the Permanent Food Service Licensing form that full-service restaurants use. A health inspector reviews catering and restaurant plans for relevant equipment to cook and serve different foods. If you’re designing a private commercial kitchen, the inspection process will look the same, too.
But there is a difference. Because you’re likely taking food off-site, your catering application will include a report of how you intend to keep food at required temperatures. You might pay fees based on the size of your operation, which can be smaller than commercial restaurants, and the complexity of your cooking and menu.
Catering license requirements: State-by-state guide
Because state and county requirements differ, here’s a roundup of a few states and the different departments and license types they require to get you started:
Arizona: Get a food permit application from your county Health Department. In Maricopa County, you’ll fill out a Fixed/Permanent Food Establishment form. Pima County has similar rules for health permits. Would-be caterers will report their business name, address, and the location of your kitchen. You’ll fill out a modified review plan request when using a licensed commissary kitchen. You’ll have to know your equipment, menu, transportation, and SOPs (standard operating procedures) and submit them with your application.
Georgia: Get a Food Service Permit from your local or county Department of Public Health. You’ll apply for the Permanent Food Service Permit and indicate that your “method of operation” is catering.
Michigan: Get a permit through the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Food Division, Food Service Section, or even the local Public Health Department. You’ll get a Fixed Food Service Establishment License if you’re always preparing food out of a single commercial kitchen for service off-site, using the same application restaurants use.
Nevada: The state handles licensing through the Division of Public and Behavioral Health (DPBH). You’ll get a Food Establishment Permit, and you’ll indicate that you’re a catering business, provide your menu and information about where you’ll cook and how you’ll transport food. County Health also permits food service establishments. In Clark County, there’s a specific caterer designation, and the license fee is $880.
Pennsylvania: In Philadelphia, city officials issue a Food Caterer License for $275. You’ll get the same license for a commissary as a food truck or an independent caterer. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture also requires a Retail Food Facilities License for caterers who serve food directly to customers.
Texas: Get a city or County Health Department Permit. It’s also available from the Texas Department of State Health Services if no local agency exists. The license application fee costs between $250 and $750.
Virginia: Apply for a Foodservice Permit from the Virginia Department of Health. You’ll be able to check that you’re a catering business and that food will be consumed off-premises.
What other information do you need to get a catering license? Before you get started, you’ll want legal advice on how to structure your company and think about the kind of food production that will happen in your business. You may cater complex meals and large events or focus on a specific type of food. Because jurisdictions are so different, knowing your own business plan is critical. States serve up a lot of different licenses from pop-ups to food trucks to private and public events, with and without alcohol—and don’t forget, sometimes food might be taxed. To bake up success, you’ll want to sort through all these catering scenarios.
Your catering license is one ingredient in a set of permits you’ll need to start a catering business. Once you’ve done all that work, you’ll want to protect your new business. Insure it with catering insurance from Huckleberry, including general liability insurance. You can get a quote faster than you can clear table 4’s chocolate mousse. And you’ll be able to cater to many more clients in years to come.