Catering license requirements

As a caterer, you're required to have the proper food handlers permits, licenses, and paperwork. This guide explains what you need to launch your catering business.

catering business in action

Are you always the one your family entrusts to baste the Thanksgiving turkey with your own special recipe? Do you live to host your friends for a themed, home-cooked meal? Does a perfectly arranged ratatouille bring you to tears? If you’re passionate about bringing your culinary creations to the masses, but not ready to start your own restaurant, then forming a catering company might be right for you.

Starting a business from home is the perfect way to put those chef skills to good use without breaking the bank—you’ll want to save your money for a great knife set. But just because you’ll be running a small operation doesn’t mean there aren’t a few hurdles to overcome. Even without a host facility, your new catering business needs proper licensure.

On the menu today is a helpful guide to how to license your catering company so you serve up your services before the oven is even finished preheating.

Catering 101

What exactly is “catering”? Like mastering the foundations of cooking, getting the basics down is crucial.

A caterer, or catering company, preps and cooks food—meals, hors d’oeuvres, a buffet—at one location, then serves it at a secondary location—a party, banquet, Bar Mitzvah, political event, you name it. Before you share your craft, you have to set up your business.

It’s illegal to work as a caterer without obtaining the proper food handlers permits, licenses, and paperwork. When you’re dealing with employees, guests, and of course, food handling, a lot can go wrong with or without a license:

  • Most likely, the health department will shut down your operation until the proper licensing and paperwork are secured. This applies to any food service establishment as well as to your employees, the food handlers—even your family member who offers to help.
  • You might encounter fines or even heftier sentences for running a business illegally.
  • A customer might get sick and sue—without insurance this could damage your bottom line and your reputation.

License requirements differ from state to state. It’s always best to check with your local branch of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).The SBA can help you develop a plan and check all the right boxes for your specific location. Make sure that you are licensed properly for each service you provide, from a home private event to a large catered event.

Yes, it can be a bit of a hassle, but no more so than managing 10+ employees serving hundreds of platters of food to bustling guests. If you can do that, you can (and must) fulfill the catering license requirements.

Food service & safety license

The name might change as you cross state lines (food establishment license, food handler’s license, etc.), but the general premise remains the same. All catering businesses require a food service license to operate. Your state health department sets the licensing requirements.

Here’s what you’ll need to successfully obtain your permit:1

  • Pass a full venue inspection from the governing body
  • Proper training for your employees
  • Food certification for you and staff members

Most states require the use of a commercial kitchen. If you don’t have one of those just lying around (we’d understand), you’ll need to upgrade your home kitchen or rent one out during a business’s off-hours. The kitchen facility needs to pass a health and safety inspection and show that it has all the proper commercial-grade equipment, including food disposal, ventilation and refrigeration.

Caterer permit

Certain states and counties require a catering-specific permit. San Francisco, for example, has a caterer permit as part of their food safety program, with specific requirements for anyone serving food off-site such as:2

  • A kitchen verification form completed by both the caterer and facility owner
  • Detailed catering menu and account of how the food will be prepped, cooked, reheated, and relocated to the event venue
  • Facility layout renderings including all equipment

Because each state has different requirements, find out if you need to go beyond the standard food service license for your on-the-go catering operation.

Business license & registration

This applies to all businesses, catering included. Depending on the state and county you live in, you might be required to obtain a business license prior to operating. Additionally, if you plan to have employees, you must register your business.

There are quite a few different business structures to choose from. From a limited liability company or sole proprietorship to an S-corp, the structure of your catering business should be based on your unique circumstances.

Getting your business in order is (almost) as important as perfecting your mini quiche.

Liquor license

Who doesn’t love happy hour with their hors d’oeuvres? If you’ll be expanding your food services to include adult beverages, you’ll probably need a different license than a caterer who does not offer them. It’s best to apply earlier rather than later because of the extended application and approval process.

You should contact the local Alcohol and Beverage Commission for the specifics of your business and state, but the requirements typically include:3

  • Proof of zoning restrictions
  • Owner and employee background checks
  • Proper staff and management training, including when to request a valid form of I.D. and what to do if your customers are intoxicated

Serving alcohol without a license is a major faux-pas, so make sure you understand the risks before pulling up to your next catering gig with a case of wine and spirits.

Liability insurance

Any environment where you’re interacting with clients and guests on location comes with a whole host of inherent risk—especially when those guests are continuously circled by platters of your culinary specialty.

Add in a full-scale industrial kitchen full of food to handle properly and equipment to maintain, and you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. The right insurance coverage will protect you:

General liability insurance – While you’re catering events, you’re constantly interacting with third parties. Unfortunately, life loves accidents and the kitchen almost loves them more. General liability insurance coverage can help protect you from the financial costs that arise from third-party claims of bodily injury, property damage, or personal and advertising injury.

Professional liability insurance – If you’re a professional caterer, sometimes a client is going to rely upon your specific recommendations for an event. Should that client say that your professional advice resulted in a financial loss, they might sue you. Professional liability insurance helps cover the financial damages that could arise from a situation where a client claims you were negligent in providing advice.

Let’s say you get a last-minute call from a past client asking you to cater an upcoming small luncheon. The pay is great and you really want to keep their business, but you don’t have a long-term insurance policy and the event is only a few days away. Are you forced to cancel on a client who relies on you?

Not at all! Thimble offers last-minute and any-minute Catering Business Insurance, including professional liability and general liability coverage.

You can buy coverage:

  • By the month for the busy holiday and wedding seasons
  • By the week when you’re booked straight
  • By the day for the odd event here and there
  • Even by the hour for that quick luncheon your client called about

Just download the Thimble mobile app or click “Get a Quote,” answer three quick questions, and we’ll generate an instant quote. From there, you can purchase with one more click and voila! Your insurance coverage is ready.

Thimble caters to your needs

Let’s say you get a last-minute call from a past client asking you to cater an upcoming small luncheon. The pay is great and you really want to keep their business, but you don’t have a long-term insurance policy and the event is only a few days away. Are you forced to cancel on a client who relies on you?

Not at all! Thimble offers last-minute and any-minute Catering Business Insurance, including professional liability and general liability coverage.

You can buy coverage:

  • By the month for the busy holiday and wedding seasons
  • By the week when you’re booked straight
  • By the day for the odd event here and there
  • Even by the hour for that quick luncheon your client called about

Just download the Thimble mobile app or click “Get a Quote,” answer three quick questions, and we’ll generate an instant quote. From there, you can purchase with one more click and voila! Your insurance coverage is ready.

Today’s special? Today’s special? Launching your business

Like a client’s food preferences, catering requirements vary. Depending on your state and county, you may need to:

  • Obtain a food and service safety license
  • Get a caterer permit
  • Register your business
  • File for a business license
  • Apply for a liquor license (if you’re going to provide alcohol)

And to top it off, you’re going to want to protect yourself from the risks you face every time you cater an event. For that, you’re in the right place. We’ll get you the insurance you need so you can focus on giving your guests a second helping of tasty treats.

Sources:

  1. Chron. What Licenses Do I Need for a Home Cooking Business? 
  2. San Francisco Department of Public Health. Food Safety Program: Caterer Permits. 
  3. bizfluent. Licenses Needed to Start a Catering Business. 

Our editorial content is intended for informational purposes only and is not written by a licensed insurance agent. Terms and conditions for rate and coverage may vary by class of business and state.

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