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How Do I Obtain a Catering License in California?

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San Francisco caterer Laurine Wickett has a word of warning for anyone interested in breaking into the catering business: Catering is like setting up and tearing down a whole restaurant every single day. Hot foods need to stay hot, cold foods need to stay cold, and you can't forget anything. But if you've got passion, a level head and you delight in making someone's gathering a masterpiece, catering can be a successful endeavor. Each state has its own rules for applying for a catering license. California has a set of steps in place to protect the safety of your potential clients.

Work out the Business Kinks

During the license application process, you're going to be asked how you're going to be doing business. Decide first what your business structure will be, such as limited liability, corporation or sole proprietorship. Choosing is important, says Nolo. It's wisest to pick an entity that will protect your personal assets in the event something goes wrong. After all, you'll spend most of your days setting up your equipment on someone else's property.

Get Certified

In California, someone in a managerial capacity in your business must have a food safety certification. That person can be you, a business partner or a cook, but that person must have the authority to instruct others on how to properly handle food. You can register for classes at your local Department of Public Health. There is a fee involved, determined by where you attend. Classes are usually an all-day affair, followed by an exam. You can register for the exam alone, but the San Francisco Department of Public Health warns that the exam is tough and no study guide will be provided. The certification is good for five years, after which time it must be renewed.

Spiked or Not

A lot of catered events call for alcohol. Decide now if you want to be able to serve it, because you'll have to apply for a caterer's permit to do so. There are a variety of caterer's permits in California, each created to address specific situations, such as special licenses and events held at veteran's clubs. Contact the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to decide which permit best suits your business. Once you have the permit, you'll need to obtain a license for each event you cater in which alcohol will flow.

Gather Your Documents

You'll need a copy of the food safety certification you or one of your employees earned, the floor plan of your business, a copy of your menu and your planned opening date to apply for a license. You'll also need to describe your plans for safe food handling. California has a weighty Retail Food Code that goes into specific detail about everything from hand washing to food prep surfaces to how to store leftovers. Reading it will familiarize you with the guidelines and keep you prepared for visits from health inspectors down the road.


Brooke Julia has been a writer since 2009. Her work has been featured in regional magazines, including "She" and "Hagerstown Magazine," as well as national magazines, including "Pregnancy & Newborn" and "Fit Pregnancy."

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