Get started

This page will help you understand the steps to opening a catering business in San Francisco. It is a resource from the Office of Small Business, San Francisco's central point of information for small businesses.

Choose a location

Choose a location
  • Find a place to prepare your food. All caterers must operate in conjunction with a food facility, such as Commissary/Catering Facility/Restaurant Kitchen. This means you will need to rent a commercial space for preparing food and storing your inventory.
    • List of catering facilities/kitchen previously approved by the Planning Department: www.sfdph.org/dph/eh/food/Caterer.asp
      • If you choose to go in a location that is not on the pre-approved list (such as a restaurant kitchen), you must submit and pay for a Planning/Zoning referral with the application.
  • Notes:
    • You must have sufficient equipment to maintain required temperatures (below 41°F or above 135°F) for all perishable food at a catering site. These may include steam tables, chafing dishes, refrigerators, coolers, etc.
    • Be sure to obtain or create a floor plan of your commissary indicating all equipment, sinks, and storage spaces. You will need this to obtain a food permit.
    • Do not serve food prepared or stored at home at a catered function. This is prohibited.
  • Visit the Office of Small Business counter at the Permit Center (49 South Van Ness) if you would like additional help understanding the permitting and licensing process. You will also be able to talk to different city departments about your permits during your visit.

Set up your business

Set up your business
  • Create a plan for the type of catering business you will open.
  • Choose a business structure.  LLCs, Corporations and Limited Partnerships must register their structure with the CA Secretary of State before registering locally. 
  • Apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN), also known as a Federal Tax ID Number from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This is used to identify your business and allows you to hire employees.  If you are a sole proprietor without employees, you may choose to use your Social Security Number instead.
  • Register your business with the City and County of San Francisco through the Office of the Treasurer and Tax Collector.
    • Resource: https://sftreasurer.org/business/register-business
    • Notes:
      • Important: Your Business Registration address must be the address of the catering facility/commissary you are working out of and it must match the address on your SF DPH application address.
      • If you register your business before choosing a final location, you will have to update your registration with the new address.  This can cost money and time.
      • The Catering Health Permit is location specific and cannot be transferred to another kitchen without submitting a new application and obtaining approval from SF DPH. An application fee will apply for a transfer of a commissary/catering facility location.
  • Choose and file a business name.  File a Fictitious Business Name (FBN) Statement at the SF Office of the County Clerk if you will be using a name other than your given name, the names of your partners, or the officially registered name of your LLC or corporation.  Research the name's availability in the county before filing.
  • Apply for a Seller's Permit from the CA Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA).  Every location must have this permit to sell taxable goods.
  • Obtain workers' compensation insurance if you will have employees.  You will need these in order to obtain the DPH permit to operate.

Food and alcohol

Food and alcohol
  • Obtain a Manager's Food Safety Certification for yourself and/or a designated employee.  This person is responsible for teaching other employees about proper food handling. 
  • Ensure all employees have a Food Handler Card. SF DPH offers a few options for obtaining this card.

  • Create a menu of all foods to be served with information on how, when and where each food item is prepared and cooked.  You will need this menu to obtain a food permit.

  • Apply for your Caterer Permit from SF DPH. Your application will include a Commissary Verification, Commissary floor plan, Proof of Worker’s Compensation Insurance, Proof of Food Safety Certification, Written Operational Procedures, Operating Schedule, Business Registration Certificate, and Seller’s Permit. 

  • Don’t serve any foods containing trans fats, per California State law. SF DPH enforces the trans fat compliance program to ensure that no food containing artificial trans fat is stored, distributed, served, or used in the preparation of any food.

Serve your guests

Serve your guests
  • Keep a calibrated metal stem/probe type thermometer nearby at all times. The thermometer must have a temperature range of 0-220 degrees F, accurate to +/-2 degrees F, and be available to monitor temperatures of food prior to transport, upon arrival, and at the time of serving.
  • Store foods, beverages, utensils and related equipment at least 6 inches off of the floor at any event.
  • Bring a copy of the approved prepared Food Safety Certificate to all events. You must be able to provide this when asked.  
  • Use containers that are compostable or recyclable if you serve takeout or allow customers to take food home. The SF Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance prohibits certain food service ware, like Styrofoam containers.
  • Provide adequate hand washing facilities inside of food prep area(s) and adjacent to service area. 
  • Ensure that restrooms with adequate hand washing facilities are available and located within 200 feet of service area.

After opening

After opening
  • Solicit work. There are a number of ways to seek out work, including using the web, word-of-mouth, advertising, and partnerships.
  • Negotiate compensation & payment plan prior to signing a contract. Consider taking a class or seeking other advice on contracts. 
  • If you make changes to your written operational procedures, menu or equipment, you will need SF DPH approval.
  • If you will be serving at an outdoor food or street fair, be sure to follow all of the SF Fire Department safety requirements, including refraining from cooking inside tents, keeping cooking equipment away from exits, and maintaining a visible fire extinguisher in each cooking area.
  • If transport time exceeds one hour, SF DPH requires you to have mechanical refrigeration and mechanical hot holding equipment.
  • If you would like to temporarily provide outdoor heaters, you must obtain a LP-Gas Storage and Use Permit and a fire watch (overtime), and follow all SF Fire Department guidelines for use of LP-Gas Mushroom-Type Heaters.
  • If you plan to use an outdoor heater permanently, you must obtain a building permit from the SF Department of Building Inspection.
  • Mark your calendar. Schedule equipment maintenance and set reminders to renew your permits and licenses as needed. 
  • Prepare and pay your local, state, and federal taxes. Learn more from these departments: