How to get a liquor license in Pennsylvania
In most cases, obtaining a PA liquor license may be a lengthy and complicated process. But, as an entrepreneur, you’re already used to putting in a little sweat equity.
Because Pennsylvania is 1 of 17 controlled alcohol states, you’ll likely have to buy and transfer an existing liquor license in your county to your business to get a liquor license. Hopefully, you can find one in the municipality you want to locate your new venture.
Most people who get a license employ professional help from attorneys, brokers, or trade organizations. Once you’re finished reading, you’ll be armed with information to help you decide your next step, and you’ll have an overview of the process.
Pennsylvania liquor license requirements and laws
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) is an independent government organization that governs Pennsylvania’s beverage alcohol industry by applying the Pennsylvania Liquor Code. The PLCB regulates the manufacture, importation, sale, distribution, and disposition of liquor, alcohol, and malt or brewed beverages in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Liquor Code establishes a quota system for on-premises consumption retail licenses and off-premises wholesale licenses. According to the Pennsylvania liquor law, the PLCB may give 1 retail license for every 3,000 people and 1 wholesale license for every 30,000 people in a county (with a minimum of 5 wholesale licenses per county). These quotas are updated every 10 years.
Municipalities in Pennsylvania may also be labeled as “dry,” prohibiting the sale of alcohol. In dry municipalities, licenses are not issued.
License statuses and obtaining a license
The PLCB classifies licenses as “active” if they are actively in use, or “suspended,” “expired,” or “safekeeping” if they are not. Licenses that are “active” or in “safekeeping” may be sold and transferred by the license holder.
In addition, the PLCB holds auctions of “expired” licenses on a non-scheduled basis, usually twice a year, typically at the beginning and end of the year. The best place to check license statuses and answer specific questions is the PLCB website at https://www.lcb.pa.gov.
The Bureau of Licensing division of the PLCB handles the issuance, renewal, and validation of wholesale and retail alcohol licenses. There are 4 methods to acquire a license:
- New license: May be restricted by quota, depending on the type of business.
- Person-to-person transfer: A license transferred to a new owner at the same location (the licensed premises).
- Place-to-place Transfer: An existing license change from one location to another under the same ownership.
- Double Transfer (person-to-person and place-to-place): The license changes owners, and the business changes location.
Requirements to buy a liquor license
To purchase or transfer a liquor license, you must be able to provide the following information:
- Background: Documentation of residency and employment records for the past 5 years and valid ID
- Clean record: A clean criminal record with no conflicts of interest related to the business (exceptions may be allowed on criminal record at the PLCB’s discretion)
- Location: A business location for the license
- Money: The money for the license, legal fees, and filing fees (financing may be available through brokers and other third parties)
After a successful liquor license transfer, you must prepare for a yearly “check-up,” called renewal or validation. The PLCB checks if you’ve been issued any citations and ensures you’ve paid your taxes to PA Revenue and Labor and Industry.
Like paying your taxes, Pennsylvania requires workers’ compensation coverage if you have employees. You may also need liquor liability and general liability insurance coverage, depending on your business model.
Types of Pennsylvania liquor licenses
There are many different liquor licenses in Pennsylvania. Each has varying degrees of availability, needs, and demand. The county and kind of license also affect demand (and the cost).
Will you serve food? Suppose your establishment plans to sell drinks on the premises. In that case, you’ll need “acceptable food provisions” and seating for 30 or more people. The first three licenses must serve food, and the final 2 are distribution licenses:
- Restaurant Liquor License (R): This is the most common license in PA and permits the sale of alcohol, specifically wine, beer, and liquor. It’s sometimes called the “tavern” or “bar” license. Besides Pennsylvania restaurants, most grocery stores, gas stations, and convenience stores hold this license to sell alcoholic beverages.
- Eating Place Liquor License (E): This license permits businesses that serve food to sell malt and brewed beverages or beer. This license may be referred to as a “corner store” or “delicatessen” license.
- Hotel Liquor License (H): This license allows a hotel that provides guests with foods and beverages to serve alcohol. They are comparable to the “R” license, except the establishment must have a minimum number of guestrooms.
- Distributor Liquor License (D): To manage a public beer distribution company, you must have this license.
- Importing Distributor Liquor License (ID). This license is for big wholesale warehouses selling beer to other distributors (D license holders). They are rare and in great demand and usually command a premium.
According to the licensing technicians at the PLCB, the best way to decide what licenses you need is to start with your business model. For example, a bar will need a different license than a brewery, and the same goes for distributors. Similar to licensing, various small businesses need distinct types of insurance, such as catering insurance, retail insurance, or restaurant and bar insurance.
When you know the type of business, you’ll understand what license is best and if it’s subject to a quota. All the above licenses are subject to quotas except the H License. For instance, getting a license is easier if you’re opening a hotel. With no quota, the PLCB can readily approve your business if your establishment meets its requirements.
Other liquor licenses
Other, less common licenses exist for particular types of businesses:
- Brewery (G) License
- Club (C) and Catering Club (CC) Liquor License
- Limited Distillery (AL) License
- Limited Winery (LK) License
Only the C and CC Licenses have quotas.
Add these permits to an R, E, or H license to expand your privileges. The PLCB issues these permits to liquor licensees.
- Amusement Permit (AP): Licensed establishments can have live entertainment and dancing.
- Extended Hours Food (EHF) Permit: Licensed establishments may stay open past 2:30 a.m., but sales of alcohol must stop at 2 a.m.
- Sunday Sales (SS) Permit: Allows alcohol sales on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
- Wine Expanded Permit: Permits selling up to 3 liters of wine-to-go per transaction. Not valid for E licenses.
Can I get a one-day liquor license in Pennsylvania?
According to the PLCB, the answer is most likely yes if you run a non-profit and no if you don’t. Check here to see if you have an eligible non-profit. If eligible, the license you’ll need is called a Special Occasion Permit.
How much does a Pennsylvania liquor license cost?
Densely populated counties like Philadelphia or Allegheny have most of the retail liquor licenses in Pennsylvania. Rural counties have smaller populations and, therefore, fewer licenses. The price of retail licenses is subject to supply and demand.
A shortage of retail liquor licenses in a county may bump up pricing. PA liquor license sales range from $15,000 to $500,000, and then there are the PLCB transfer costs (typically under $2,000). If it makes sense for your business model, you may tailor your establishment to meet the requirements of businesses with no quota, such as manufacturers, hotels, wineries, breweries, and distilleries.
License renewal costs between $30 to $700 every 2 years.
And before you can get the license from the PLCB, you’ll have to make sure everything is good to go. Whether you’re launching a new business or adding a fresh revenue stream to an existing one, you can find the liquor liability coverage and small business insurance you’ll need. In as little as 5 minutes, you can get a quote from Huckleberry.