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Opening a Restaurant? A Guide to Understanding Restaurant and Bar Regulations

If you’re thinking about starting a bar or a restaurant, one look at all the rules and regulations involved might make you throw up your hands. While all startup businesses have to get licenses and permits, bars and restaurants have to jump through many more hoops to ensure the food and beverages they serve are safe. Understanding regulations for restaurants and bars is complex, but essential.

Failing to follow even one of the regulations could cause major problems for your business. Consider some of the things that could happen:

A customer sees roaches in your restaurant kitchen and writes a scathing review that ruins your reputation.
A customer gets food poisoning from spoiled food and sues you.
An improperly maintained stove hood causes a grease fire and your restaurant has to close down for costly repairs.

If worse comes to worst, failing to meet regulations could cost you your business.

As you can see, staying abreast of all restaurant and bar regulations is essential to success. Keep reading to learn more about the appropriate regulations for your location.

How do regulations for restaurants and bars work?

Food service regulations are based on the federal Food Code, set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA doesn’t inspect or govern individual bars and restaurants, however. Each state creates its own food code based on the federal Food Code, but they may interpret it differently or create their own rules, too.

To find out what your state food-service laws are, visit the FDA website for a list of food-service codes by state and find the state authority over restaurants and bars. While each state’s regulations are different, bars and restaurants in most states generally follow these rules:

Get a food-service license

If your bar or restaurant stores, prepares, and serves food (as opposed to just selling prepackaged food) it must be inspected by state and local health departments to confirm you are following food safety regulations. Each state has its own restaurant inspection process; however, in most cases the county health department performs these inspections.

Before your bar or restaurant can open, you must pass inspection; once your bar or restaurant is open, regular inspections will be required to maintain your food-service license. A license can be suspended for a wide range of violations including improperly stored food, vermin infestation, plumbing problems, and more. Your state and city health departments can give you more information about food service licenses and inspections.

Store and handle food properly

To avoid food-borne illnesses like salmonella, you must store food properly. For instance, items must be stored separately to prevent cross-contamination. They must be labeled by the date they were received, and the first items received must be the first items used. Your restaurant must also have a working thermometer and refrigeration should be below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the growth of bacteria.

Monitor employee cleanliness

To prevent spreading germs, employees are expected to keep clean, wash their hands regularly, and pull back their hair so it doesn’t get into food or drinks. Sick employees should not work around food. In order to serve food, each worker needs to complete a food safety course and get a food handler’s permit. Your state and city health departments can provide more information about employee regulations in your location.

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Keep employees safe

Bars and restaurants, like all employers, have to follow federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations and safety standards to provide safe and healthful working conditions. There are plenty of risks to restaurant and bar employees, from slipping on a wet floor to getting burned in a grease fire or hurting themselves lifting a case of canned food. Visit OSHA’s online employer guide and Small Business Resources to get started implementing a safe workplace. OSHA also provides free on-site consultations to help you set up safe work conditions.

Get licensed to sell alcohol

A restaurant or bar must meet both state and local regulations in order to serve alcohol. To get started, find your state authority in this list of state alcohol beverage control boards. Also contact your local city office to apply for a liquor license.

Liquor licenses vary based on the type of alcohol you’re serving and where the drinks are served. A license to sell hard liquor is harder to get than a license to sell only beer and wine. If you plan to start 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 to be licensed.

More bar and restaurant permits you might need

Every business is different and every community has different regulations for restaurants and bars. Based on your location and what you plan to offer, you might need the following permits and licenses:

A live entertainment license to have musicians play live or let patrons dance
A music license to play live, recorded or streaming music
A dumpster placement permit if you want to put a trash dumpster outside
A valet parking permit if you want to provide customers with valet parking
Sidewalk permits for outside seating

Resources for bar and restaurant regulations

The following resources may provide more information and guidance:

National Restaurant Association
State restaurant associations
American Nightlife Association

RELATED: Business Lessons Any Entrepreneur Can Learn From a Failed Restaurant

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