How to Get a Food Vendor License in 6 Steps
Step 1: Establish your kitchen.
Step 2: Find the right department to work with.
Step 3: Determine the license(s) you need.
Step 4: Fill out an application.
Step 5: Set up a health inspection.
Step 6: Note when to renew.
An essential step to starting any new business is making sure you have the proper business licenses and permits in order to legally operate. While the specific licenses you’ll need will vary depending on the type of business you’re starting and where, businesses in the food services industry can expect to meet extra criteria.
After all, handling and serving food comes with a great deal of regulation to ensure the safety of everyone involved. And one important license you’ll need to obtain if you’re in the business of preparing or selling food is a food vendor license.
A food vendor license, also sometimes called a food service license, is necessary for restaurants and food trucks alike. Generally, if you’re serving—and especially if you’re preparing—food, you need one of these licenses.
One thing to keep in mind is that the laws around food licensing will vary depending on the state where your business is operating, but the good news is that the process is fairly similar from state to state. If you’re wondering how to become a licensed food vendor, read on for the steps you’ll need to take.
How to Get a Food Vendor License: A Step-by-Step Guide
If you need a food vendor license, you’ll have to apply through the proper channels and undergo an inspection. Here’s everything you need to know.
Step 1: Establish Your Kitchen
Whether you plan to open a restaurant, a mobile food truck, or a catering company, you’re going to need a kitchen and it will need to meet certain standards in order for you to be granted a food vendor license. Familiarize yourself with the health and safety laws and regulations in your area and for your specific type of business, and seek professional assistance if necessary.
If you’re looking for a mobile food vendor license, you’re going to need to check how many are available in your area, whether there’s a limit to how many are issued, and if there are specific areas where you can operate with the license. The licenses and permits will vary from state to state and county to county, so you’re going to have some research to do.
Step 2: Find the Right Department to Work With
To figure out which department, or departments, you need to work with for your food vendor license, you should check the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations list. The list will show you whether you’ll need to work with the Department of Consumer Protection, Department of Public Health, Department of Agriculture, or another department.
If you’re unsure of this step, again, we advise working with a business lawyer who specializes in restaurant law in your area who can help you navigate the application process so you don’t miss any steps.
Step 3: Determine the License(s) You Need
There are different kinds of food vendor licenses out there. You may see the terms limited and unlimited mentioned along with temporary food licenses and restricted licenses.
In some states, if you’re only selling food that’s prepackaged and isn’t prepared on-site, you might be able to have a limited license. An unlimited license, on the other hand, would be necessary for those who will be selling food packaged on-site either in place of prepared food or in addition to prepared food.
As you might have guessed, a temporary license would be for those who needed a license to sell their food at a limited-time event like a fair or a convention.
Step 4: Fill Out an Application
Once you know where to apply for the license you need and which department it is that will approve you, you’ll want to complete the application and file it with that department. If your application is approved, then you’ll have to go ahead and set up an in-person health inspection.
Applications will usually require that you specify your type of restaurant or food retailer; whether you’re applying for a new license or renewing one; the information about your facility, like the address and the contact information; the hours of operation; information about the owner and their contact information; and more.
Keep in mind, the specific questions will vary, but typically, you can expect to provide this information at minimum.
Step 5: Set up a Health Inspection
You’ve already set up your kitchen to abide by the proper health and safety standards, so now all that’s left is to show it off to an inspector. This review will ensure that your facilities are safe for both your customers and your employees.
Some of the things an inspector will look for in basically any state you have a food business will include handwashing facilities that are properly stocked, cold and hot foods stored at the proper temperatures, proper waste disposal, and electrical safety.
If you fail your inspection, you can make the necessary changes and then schedule another inspection, for an additional fee.
Step 6: Note When to Renew
If you’re approved for your food vendor license—congratulations, you’re now legally allowed to sell your food. However, this isn’t a one-and-done process. You will have to renew your license on a regular basis. Some states require that you renew every year, while others require you to renew every two years. Another point to note, some of the licenses expire automatically, so you need to stay on top of the renewal time.
To renew your food vendor license, you will likely have to schedule another inspection, as well as pay a renewal fee.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you’re still unsure about some aspects around how to get a food vendor license, here are answers to some common questions on the subject.
Who Needs a Food Vendor License?
If you’re selling food that is prepared in a kitchen, you’re going to need a food vendor license, or a food service license. Even if your restaurant is mobile and operates out of a truck, or if you rent a booth at a local farmers market, you still need to have a license to serve food.
Generally, establishments that sell or serve food directly to consumers need a license. This includes restaurants, bars, clubs, grocery stores, convenience stores, schools, caterers, and more.
How Much Is a Food Vendor License?
The price of a food vendor license will vary depending on where you’re applying for a license and what type of license you need (limited vs. unlimited, for example) and it will be more if you need more than one health inspection as well. You can expect to spend between $150 and $300 for the whole licensing process.
Who Issues a Food Vendor License?
This is different depending on the country and state where you’re applying for the license. In some areas, the Department of Health might be responsible for issuing you a food vendor license; in other areas, the Department of Agriculture might be the issuing department.
Are There Other Permits for Selling Food?
Keep in mind that even if you get your food vendor license, there will be several other permits or licenses you need for your business. For instance, if you plan to sell alcohol, you’ll need a liquor license. You may also need a food handler’s permit, certificate of occupancy, building health permit, sign permit, dumpster placement permit, and many more. If you haven’t already, find a lawyer familiar with your industry to ensure you’ve taken all the necessary legal steps to open your business.
The Bottom Line
A food vendor license is necessary for any business that serves food—whether they prepare it on-site or at another location. This means traditional restaurants, food trucks, and pop-ups alike will need to be licensed.
Getting a food vendor license will involve getting your kitchen up to code, completing an application, and passing an inspection of your facilities. Once approved, you won’t have to undergo the process for a year or two, depending on your state’s specific rules. Once you have your food service license, you’re one step closer to opening your business.
Nina works to help make complicated business topics more accessible for small business owners. She’s written on topics ranging from payroll management to launching a business. She was previously a staff writer at Newsweek covering technology, science, breaking news, and culture. She has also worked as a reporter for Business Insider and The Boston Globe.