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Rules and Regulations for Restaurants and Bars
by Rieva Lesonsky
June 23, 2023

Owning a restaurant or bar comes with so many regulations attached, it’s easy to want to throw in the towel. Almost all businesses have to obtain certain state and federal permits and licenses to open and operate, but when you’re serving food and drink, the stakes are much higher because consumer health is involved.

Food and beverage businesses must comply with a myriad of industry-specific regulations. Failing to follow any one of these rules could cause a lot of problems for your business.

You could suffer from bad publicity, such as an online review mentioning dirty conditions, that permanently hurts your facility’s reputation. You could be sued by a customer who gets sick from spoiled food or an employee who is injured in your kitchen. In the worst-case scenario, you could lose your restaurant or liquor license and even lose your business.

Clearly, there are lots of reasons to stay on top of restaurant and bar regulations.

Here’s what you need to know to learn and comply with the appropriate regulations for your location and stay on the right side of the law.

How bar and restaurant regulations work

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets the federal Food Code. However, the FDA doesn’t oversee individual bars and restaurants. Instead, the various states use the Food Code as the basis for their own food codes. They may adopt its rules, interpret them differently or set their own rules.

You’ll need to follow your own state’s foodservice code. Visit the FDA website for a list of food service codes by state. Use this to find the state authority handling restaurants and bars and view the laws that apply in your state.

In general, bars and restaurants in most states can expect to be subject to the following rules and regulations:

Foodservice license:

Businesses that store, prepare and serve food (as opposed to simply selling prepackaged food) must be inspected by both state and local health departments to ensure they’re following food safety regulations. Each state has its own restaurant inspection process, but usually, the inspection is done by the County’s Health Department.

If your bar or restaurant isn’t open yet, you’ll need to pass an inspection before you can open. If you are open, you’ll need to undergo regular inspections to keep your license. Restaurant permits can be suspended for any number of violations including rodent infestation, lack of hot water, faulty plumbing, and more. If your state or county inspectors use the popular A-B-C grading system to rate food service establishments, you may also have to post a less-than-stellar grade outside your business, which can drive customers away.

Contact your state and city health departments for more information about food service licenses and inspections.

Food storage:

Safe food storage is critical to avoid food-borne illnesses. For example, food must be stored separately and labeled by the date received. The first items received must be the first items used. The facility must also have a working thermometer, and refrigeration must be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything above 40 degrees allows bacteria to grow.

Employee cleanliness:

To protect the health of customers, employees are expected to be clean, wash their hands regularly, and keep their hair pulled back so it doesn’t get into food or drinks. Employees should not work when they are ill. All employees who serve food will need to complete a food safety course and be issued a food handler’s permit.

Contact your state and city health departments to get more information about employment regulations and food handler’s permits.

Employee safety:

Like all employers, bars and restaurants are subject to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. OSHA sets and enforces safety standards to ensure safe and healthful working conditions. Restaurant and bar employees face the risk of injury from slip-and-fall accidents, heavy lifting, stove or oven fires, smoke inhalation from improper ventilation, and more. To protect your employees and your business, start by visiting OSHA’s online employer guide and Small Business Resources to find answers to your questions. You can even get a free on-site consultation from OSHA; this doesn’t involve any penalties but simply representatives visiting your site to help you put the proper safety rules in place.

Selling alcohol:

Your restaurant or bar must meet both state and local regulations for serving alcohol. Start by finding your state authority using this list of state alcohol beverage control boards. Next, contact your local city office to apply for a license to sell alcohol.

There are different classes of licenses depending on what kind of alcohol you’re serving and where the drinks are served. For example, a license to sell hard liquor is different than a license to sell only beer and wine (and more difficult to get). If you’re opening a brewery, winery, distillery or other business that produces alcoholic beverages for sale, you’ll need to contact the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for approval.

Additional bar and restaurant permits

Depending on your location and what you plan to offer at your bar or restaurant, you may also need other permits. These may include:

  • A live entertainment license if you want to provide entertainment such as live musicians or offer dancing or karaoke.
  • A music license if you want to play live, recorded or streaming music in your bar or restaurant
  • A dumpster placement permit that specifies where you can put your trash dumpster outside your bar or restaurant
  • A valet parking permit if you plan to offer valet parking for customers
  • Sidewalk permits if you plan to offer outside seating

Where to get help

Your industry association, which may operate on a national or state level, should have a lot of information about bar and restaurant regulations in your location. For example, the California Restaurant Association has specific information for issues related to California restaurants and bars. The National Restaurant Association provides information on food safety and offers a list of state restaurant associations. Make an appointment to meet with a representative if you can. The association should be up on all the latest regulations.

Download a complete checklist of bar and restaurant licenses and permits.

Need guidance through the regulatory maze? A SCORE mentor familiar with your state and local regulations can help.

About the author
Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is president and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog
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