How to Get a Food Service License in 2021 (+Cost)

How to Get a Food Service License in 2021 (+Cost)
January 17, 2020 Levi Olmstead

Serving food requires much more than making tasty dishes and thirst-quenching drinks. 

Whether you’re opening a new restaurant, food truck, launching a pop-up restaurant, or wanted to add food options to your existing business, there are a lot of hoops you have to jump through to ensure your business is entirely up to code and you have all the necessary permits. 

Getting the necessary permits to open a restaurant may seem like a simple task after all the hard work putting a restaurant concept together, gaining investor support, and finding a location, equipment, and staff.

However, it is an incredibly important and tedious step in the process to open a restaurant that should not be overlooked or taken lightly, because without the proper permits and licensing, none of your hard work can be shared with consumers.  

One of the main and first licensing you should consider is a food service license.

What Is a Food Service License?

A food service license is a permit required for any business that serves food cooked on-site. It suggests that the establishment has abided by all regulations needed to serve food safely to consumers and registered with the state government. 

Depending on your establishment and state, this license can be called something else. For instance, if you are opening a food truck, because there is no seating, the license can sometimes be called a food vendor’s license.


Above: An example of a food service operation license from Ohio.

Regardless of your establishment type, if you’re cooking and serving food on-site, some variety of a food service license will be required.

You don’t need a food license to serve food in your business.

Learn how to increase time spent in your business by serving a full food menu to your customers – without a kitchen or food license.

Did we mention it’s free?

Cost of a Food Service License

A food service license can cost anywhere between $100 and $1,000. The price varies based on the number of seats within a restaurant, the location of the restaurant, and the number of employees.

How to Get a Food Service License in 3 Steps

The process to getting a food service license is slightly different for each business. 

It’s important to carry out in-depth research to know exactly what laws apply to your business that you will need to consider when applying for your food license. Once you’ve uncovered and acquired the required fields needed to get a food service license, you can feel confident in applying for your license. After that, the only thing left to worry about is passing the health inspection. 

Below will outline each of these three steps to getting a food service license in more depth to ensure you know exactly what to expect throughout each stage of the process.

1. Know the Laws that Apply to Your Business

Location is the most influential factor that will impact the requirements you will need to abide by when applying for a food service license. It is important to note that there are various levels of government guidelines you have to consider. 

First, consider the general laws across the country – the FDA’s food and drug processing laws at a federal level. 

Second, consider the laws more local to your state and county. These will vary from state to state and even between nearby counties. 

If you are a mobile food vendor, like a food truck, this can become tricky because you will have to consider all the location guidelines you plan to provide service in. Understand what the county or counties guidelines are and how many food service licenses you will be required to have – you may need different licenses between county and state lines. 

A great place to start your research is checking the federal regulations you will need to abide. Then funnel down to the more specific laws and regulations you will need to follow on the state(s) licensing website(s) you will be operating in and the county/city websites. 

Once you’ve found all the requirements needed and completed them, it’s time to actually apply for your license(s).

2. Apply for a Permit

Similar to the previous step, the application process can vary depending on where you’re applying for it. 

Keep an eye out for the specificities for your local area when applying. To give you a glimpse at what to generally expect, the following list includes routine steps that you will likely encounter. 

  • Get the Application: The application can most likely be found on the website of the local area you’re applying within. If you are having trouble finding it, you can call the number to the local government and ask for further information on where you can access the form. 
  • Fill out the Application: This step is obvious. You have to completely fill out the form so as to ensure you get approved for the license. Be prepared to answer questions regarding your business structure and facilities. 
  • Pay the Application Fee: After you finish the application, you will have to pay the application fee prior to submission. 
  • Wait for Application Approval: After submission and paying the application fee, you will need to wait for your application to be reviewed and approved. 
  • Pay Permit Fees: Once you’ve been approved for the food service license, you will need to pay the permit fees prior to actually receiving the proper licensing. Typically, these permits are good for one year and need to be renewed annually. The renewal fee is often less steep than the first time fee. 

It’s important to note that in certain cities, a limited number of licenses are given out at a time to prevent overcrowding to the best of the local government’s ability. You may be added to a waitlist in this case scenario.

3. Passing the Health Inspection

Pretty much every food service license requires regular inspections from the health department to ensure your establishment is up to code. 

This inspection will assure that your restaurant is safely and sanitarily handling its ingredients and meals. This will include checks such as restroom facility locations and guidelines and food storage locations and temperatures. 

There is typically a fee for the health inspection not included in the licensing fee. The fee will be owed at either the time you schedule your appointment or request an inspection.

In the unfortunate case your establishment does not pass the health inspection, you will need to repeat this process including paying the inspection fee again. 

If you do pass the health inspection, you are ready to go with your food service license and can now focus on other permits and licenses you will need to run your restaurant.


All Permits and Licenses Needed to Run a Restaurant

A food service license is not the only license required to run a restaurant. Below is a list of licenses and permits you will need to consider and likely obtain prior to opening your business. 

Business License

A business license is required by every legitimate business that operates within the United States. They can cost between $25 and $7,000. 

Liquor License

Similar to a food service license, if you are hoping to serve alcohol in your restaurant, you will need a liquor license. The type of liquor license your business will require will depend on if your business is serving just beer and wine, spirits, or both. 

Food Handler’s Permit

A food handler’s permit is required to make sure all restaurant staffers are abiding by food sanitation regulations in all regards – from storage to preparation to serving. 

Employer Identification Number

An employer identification number (EID) is required for all businesses operating in the United States. It acts as a tax ID number for the IRS. 

Certificate of Occupancy

A certificate of occupancy verifies that the building your restaurant is operating in was constructed safely and is being maintained to local standards. These typically cost $100.  

Sign Permit

If you’re opening a restaurant, it’s not uncommon you will want to hang a sign outside of your establishment. For this, you will need a sign permit. If you’re renting your location, it would be best to get approval from your landlord before doing this. This permit can cost between $20 and $50. 

Music License

A lot of restaurants today have music in the background to add to the ambiance. If you want to use music and avoid copyright infringement, you’ll need a music license. Typically, a music license for background music costs between $250 and $500. 

Resale Permit

If you are planning to sell wholesale food, you will need to acquire a resale permit to prevent double sales tax on these items. These cost no more than $50.

Building Health Permit

Depending on your location, in addition to the health inspection required for your food service license, you will need a building health permit from the county you’re running your business in.

Employee Health Permit

In addition to a building health permit, you may also be required to obtain an employee health permit to ensure employees receive the proper training and resources to offer safe and sanitary handling of the food.

Seller’s Permit

A seller’s permit gives the state the ability to identify your business as a collector of sales tax. While this permit is similar to a resale permit, most states require both. 

Valet Parking Permit

Depending on the type of restaurant you’re opening and its location, you may want to offer valet parking to your customers. If this is the case, you will need a valet parking permit to get approval on the pick-up and drop-off locations and parking spaces.  

Dumpster Placement Permit

Probably one of the most overlooked permits is the dumpster placement permit. However, this permit is necessary if you’re planning to use a state dumpster nearby your establishment – which you likely will.

Getting a Food Service License in 2020

Getting a food service license in 2020 takes a fair amount of work and should not be overlooked when planning to open a restaurant. 

While it may not be the most fun part of opening your restaurant, it is one of the most important steps and can run smoothly if you follow all the guidelines required by your federal, state, and local government. 

Following the steps above should help to push you in the right direction on the process to getting a food service license.

So, start your research, apply for your food service license and any other licenses and permits you’ll need to run your business, and start cooking!

Looking to Serve Food Without a Food Service License?

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You don’t need a food license to serve food in your business.

Learn how to increase time spent in your business by serving a full food menu to your customers – without a kitchen or food license.

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