What Licenses Are Needed to Start a Catering Business?

If you are operating a catering business, you will need to apply for licenses and permits to operate legally. These licenses can be obtained easily if you go through the proper channels to do so. 

The licenses needed to start a catering business requires acquiring state-wide licenses, such as a general business license. In addition, you may need to obtain additional local permits and licensing to serve food and drink at your event.

Read on to discover what licenses are needed at the state and local levels and how to obtain them. In addition, we will discuss some specific catering situations and what additional licenses may be required to operate them.

What Catering Licenses Are Required at the State Level?

The state licenses required for catering businesses include licenses for a general business license, which typically costs $200-$500. Additionally, you will need a license to sell alcohol if your business plans to do so. 

In addition to the state-wide licenses, you may need additional local permits and licensing to serve food and drink at specific events or venues. 

In many states across the U.S., it is illegal to serve alcohol unless You have a permit or license from the state’s regulatory board that covers the type of alcoholic beverages being served at an event. Some states may require you to first obtain a liquor license at the local level before applying at the state leve. Check with your local government for instructions.

For example, in California, if you plan to serve wine, you’ll need an ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) license, which can cost around $500 depending on whether your business already has other licenses/permits.

What Catering Permits Are Required at the Local Level?

In most counties, there are three main licenses needed to operate legally:

  • A food handler certification
  • A restaurant license
  • Local permits (the latter of which are often required for catering)

Whether serving food at an event or providing buffets as part of banquet service, all businesses that serve food must maintain compliance with local health codes and ordinances.

Where to Get a Food Handler’s Certification

A food handler’s certification can be obtained at a local health department. Permits are required for each food handler on the premises. These permits are around $25 per food handler with some exceptions. 

Food handlers permits are a valuable tool for catering companies to protect themselves and the customer. 

Food Handler’s Certifications take operators and caterers that handle food through courses that teach them to safely do so. Once they are tested and pass, they will receive a certification to handle food. During food safety inspections, health inspectors will check that all food handlers on the premises are certified.

How to Get a Restaurant Operations License

A restaurant operations license is obtained from your local health department. Look at your local department’s website for instructions on applying online, but most will require an in-person visit.  These licenses are costly, though there are exemptions for small businesses with low daily sales. 

Catering companies must obtain these licenses before serving any customers to avoid fines and other penalties — typically $200 per day from the violation date until compliance has been reached.

Some counties may also require permits if the caterer operates within a certain distance of an event location, such as schools or parks.  To avoid fines and penalties, it’s essential to check with local authorities before beginning any catering operations.

Who Pays for My Catering Licenses and Permits?

Some venues may pay for the permit needed for catering on-site for specific events, but if the venue does not, it is paid for by the catering business owner.

It’s important to check local authorities before beginning operations since there could also be fines and penalties involved depending on when and where violations occur. 

Licenses should be paid for by any business owner. In some cases, licenses may come with an upfront fee or monthly subscription as part of a licensing agreement.  Licenses are typically issued to the company and not individual employees unless otherwise specified.

What Are Other Requirements in Catering Situations?

Some unique catering situations require additional permits or licenses, and though some may be obtained by the venue hosting the event, it is always best to check before beginning operation. Some other catering options that will require you to obtain further licensing include:

  • Operating licenses for alcohol: Whether it’s providing alcohol service at an event or selling meals from a restaurant, all businesses that serve alcoholic beverages must maintain compliance with local licenses/permit standards. In most states, there are two licenses needed to operate legally – liquor license and permit (the latter being required for any outdoor events).
  • Retail licenses: A retail license allows your catering company to sell directly off-site rather than relying on an event organizer to take care of all the sales.
  • Sales licenses: If you plan to sell food off-site to retail locations or hosts who want a caterer for their events, a sales license is necessary for most states.

Check with your local government officials or with the venues in question to ensure the proper permits have been obtained before the event begins.

Licenses Needed for Unique Catering Situations

Additional unique permits may be needed depending on what type of foods you are planning on serving. Some special situations that may require other licensing includes:

  • Licenses for produce
  • Licenses allowed by vendors who would like their food served from a vending machine
  • Licenses that will allow operating out of a booth to sell food.

You also have to take into consideration licenses for equipment rentals such as tents and tables. These licenses are usually obtained by hiring someone else (rental company) but this can vary depending on what type of event.

Weddings, for example, will require different licenses than corporate events because they often involve more people in a public space. Corporate events are hosted inside, where most servers would come from the same facility hosting the event itself.


Business licenses are usually obtained at the local county or health department. These licenses, which are required before beginning any catering operations, can be costly for small businesses with low daily sales, and exemptions exist for these companies. 

County permits may also be necessary if your business operates within a certain distance of an event location such as schools or parks. To avoid paying exorbitant fees, it’s best to check with local authorities first about what licenses will be needed when starting a catering company to purchase them ahead of time.

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