Licensing and Other Legal Issues
Since caterers deal with potentially hazardous foods — foods that can cause illness if not handled properly — the kitchens they work in must be licensed, and caterers must be trained in food safety. Only commercial kitchens can be licensed. Caterers cannot work from their home kitchens and transport food elsewhere.
Commercial kitchens are specifically designed for large-scale food preparation. They have special layouts, which keep raw food separate from cooked foods. They have special ventilation systems, heavy-duty equipment meant to be used to cook large amounts of food, special nonslip floor mats, and other special features. Worktables are made of stainless steel for easy cleaning. Commercial kitchens have specific sink requirements and must use only commercial refrigeration units. There are also regulations for lighting fixtures, screens, restrooms, and dumpsters.
Every state has guidelines for layouts of commercial kitchens. If you're designing your own commercial kitchen or renovating one, make sure your plan follows your state's guidelines. Make sure your architect is up to date on all the new code requirements.
Commercial kitchens are regulated by county or by state health departments. Every kitchen is inspected at least once a year. An inspector will check to make sure that dry and refrigerated ingredients are stored and handled properly, refrigerators maintain the right temperature, there are no signs of vermin, insects are kept under control, and the chefs adhere to correct procedures, such as properly cooling and reheating foods and washing their hands.
Research which agencies regulate licensing, inspection, zoning, and building codes. Start by contacting your state's Department of Health and/or the Department of Agriculture and Markets. Local municipal zoning and planning boards determine the allowable size of a facility. Local building codes will dictate the volume of business allowed and drainage issues.
Safe Food Handling
Since mishandling food can be dangerous for consumers, every caterer must be trained in food safety. Perishable foods, if given the right conditions, will grow dangerous bacteria. In an effort to prevent food-borne illnesses, the food industry developed a standard seven-step system called Hazardous Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP). This system is taught in culinary schools and food service seminars around the country, and every professional cook needs to know it and follow it. The seven steps are:
Assess hazards and potential risks.
Identify critical control points, including cross contamination, cooking, cooling, and hygiene.
Establish procedures to ensure safety is maintained at all critical control points.
Monitor critical control points, using the correct tools.
Take corrective actions as soon as a critical control point is in jeopardy.
Set up a record-keeping system to log all of your flowchart and temperature checks.
Maintain the system to make sure it's working.
ServSafe courses taught by the National Restaurant Association are available online at
Exact licensing requirements vary from state to state and county to county, so you'll have to check with the local county offices. In New York, for example, commercial kitchens are inspected and licensed by the Department of Health. Specific information about how to safely handle raw eggs, cool food, and avoid problems is available at
In order to serve liquor of any kind, you'll need to carry a liquor license. Liquor licenses, like commercial kitchen licenses, are overseen on the state level, and requirements and availability vary from state to state. Each state has its own liquor license authority, and the licenses are granted at the local level depending on your specific location.
Liquor licenses are not easy to get and are often expensive. They also increase your liability and will add to your insurance premiums. Some states only resell existing licenses rather than issuing new ones, while others can put a moratorium on issuing new licenses in certain areas if the local authorities feel that there are too many in too small an area.
If you plan to apply for a liquor license, consult a lawyer experienced in handling local liquor permits. State statutes often have specific requirements for locations to qualify for a permit. An experienced lawyer can help you navigate through the process more quickly and easily and can advise you on how to best meet the statute specifications.