How to Open a Restaurant in Philadelphia

You’re ready to open a restaurant in Philadelphia.  You have everything you need: a great building, all the right equipment on order, a dedicated team, and some amazing recipes.  Now you just need to get a food license from the City of Philadelphia.  Is that just one form?  Maybe a little inspection?

Not quite.  While you do need an inspection from the Health Department to operate a restaurant, and there is a simple form that says “Food License,” actually getting complete approval to open a restaurant in Philadelphia can be a long and complicated journey.  As Philly Health Commissioner Thomas Farley once said, “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

Okay, maybe he didn’t actually say that.  But getting officially certified to open a restaurant in Philadelphia can be a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re in for.  Fear not!  Permit Philly is here to break down the process for you.

Stationary vs. Mobile Food Service

First, a quick note about the type of food service you’re going to open.  If you want to open a traditional, sit-down restaurant or a take-out joint jawn, you are going to operate what the City calls a “stationary food business.”  If you just want to open a food truck, then you are looking to operate a “mobile food business.”

The process is similar for both types of food business, but you need more documentation and permits to open a restaurant in Philadelphia than you do to operate a food truck.  In this guide, we’ll focus on the restaurant – the stationary food business.  But if you’d like to compare this process with the process for a food truck, check out the City’s reference guide for mobile food businesses.

The City also has a reference guide for stationary food businesses, but this reference guide can be a little daunting.  So we’re going to break it down into tiny, bite-sized pieces – and look, maybe “Tiny, Bite-Sized Pieces” can be the name of your restaurant.

Step 1: Zoning and Use Permits

If you’ve built or renovated anything in the City, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you: you need a zoning or use permit to operate a restaurant.

A zoning permit is required, as always, if you’re changing the number of people living in the building or the size of the building.  A use permit – which has the same application form as a zoning permit – is required to use the building as a restaurant.

(Also, don’t forget: if you want to have a sign for your restaurant, you also need a zoning permit for that!)

Either way, this should be one application: you can put both the zoning changes and use changes on one application.  If, for example, you plan to renovate a building that you want to use as a restaurant, you can apply with one form for both of those things.

As always, make sure your building is actually allowed to be used as a restaurant.  Otherwise, be prepared to fight for a variance.

To actually build your restaurant, you need to apply for a building permit.  Normally, you would apply for a zoning permit and a building permit at the same time.  However, for a restaurant you probably want to hold off on that, because you need…

Step 2: Health Department Approval

This is where things get complicated.  Normally, you apply to zone or use a building in a certain way and apply to actually build your idea at the same time.  But in a restaurant, if the idea you want to build doesn’t meet with Health Department approval – specifically, the Office of Food Protection’s approval – you might have to go back and submit new architectural plans to the City of Philadelphia; or worse, get a new building permit.

You can split the difference by getting a building permit for any exterior changes or major layout changes, then applying for another building permit to address the food preparation concerns of the Health Department.  Or you can apply for the whole thing all at once, but hold off on building out the interior until you’re sure that the Health Department has given you the green light.

The important thing to know is that you need two approvals from Health to open a restaurant in Philadelphia:

Food Safety Certificate

Every restaurant in… well, basically everywhere has to have one person on hand at all times who is certified in food safety – this is the Person in Charge (PIC).  Philly being Philly, you are required here to get a Philadelphia food safety certificate before you can open a restaurant in Philadelphia.

To get this certificate, you have to show that you have passed an approved food safety course.  If you haven’t taken one, the City offers a list of approved courses.  Once you have a certificate showing that you’ve completed the course, you can take it down to the Health Department, who will review it (for $30).  This will take six weeks, but in the meantime they will issue a temporary food safety certificate.

Plan Approval

While that’s going on, it’s time to get your plans approved!  To open a restaurant, you need to submit architectural drawings showing the layout of your restaurant and equipment, and you need to fill out a long list of specifications – for example, you need to specify the make and model of your hot water heater and show that it has enough juice to power both dishwashing and hand cleaning.  In that vein, you also need to provide a list of every piece of equipment you buy for the restaurant.  Health will want to see your menu, too, to make sure you have to equipment to safely cook what you’re trying to cook.

It’s a long application, so get yourself a good architect and save all your equipment receipts.

Plan approval is, to put it nicely, terrible.  Don’t get me wrong – the people at the Health Department are lovely.  But they get a lot of applications, so you have to wait 30 business days – that’s right: six weeks – to hear back from them.  You can speed up the process for a cool $315, which should get you a review in two weeks.  If you’re on a tight schedule, fork over the cash.  Six weeks is a long time to do exactly nothing with your restaurant.

Step 3:  Construction Permits

Okay, the Health Department likes you!  Everything is going great!

Now, you can apply for a building permit, or – if you already applied for a building permit – actually start building the interior of your restaurant according to the plans approved by the Health Department.

Keep in mind that you’ll also need to get electrical and plumbing permits too.  And also keep in mind that you’ll need a separate permit application to build a sign (we at Permit Philly have said it before: signs in Philly are absolute torture).

Here’s another important thing to keep in mind:  Your building permit needs to include a Certificate of Occupancy.  Put that on your application in the first place!  If you don’t, you’ll need to apply again for a CO.  Avoid this!

Step 4: Inspections

Both the Health Department and Licenses and Inspections will need to review your work.  The Health Department will want to make sure you actually made a restaurant following the plans they approved, and Licenses and Inspections will want to make sure that you built, like, a safe restaurant that won’t collapse.

You can schedule both of these inspections with the departments themselves.  The Health Department will give you instructions for this when they hand back your reviewed restaurant plans.  L&I should contact the contractor on the project to review the work.  If that doesn’t happen and you find yourself trying to contact an L&I inspector, pro tip: call between 8:30am and 9:30am.  The inspectors leave their offices to, you know, inspect stuff after that – and whatever they tell you, you won’t be able to contact them in the afternoon.

Step 5: Food License (and Other Licenses)

Oh my god!  You’ve gotten approved by the Health Department and Licenses and Inspections!  What could be missing?  You’re ready to open a restaurant in Philadelphia!

… well, almost.  Now, you have to submit that lump of paperwork to Licenses and Inspections to get a Food License.  Yep, after all this, you have to show the Department your Philly Commercial Activity License, your Philly tax clearance, your approved inspection report from the Health Department, and your Certificate of Occupancy.  Once they have that – and, of course, $285 or $415, depending on the size of the place – you can open up a restaurant!

Now, here’s the good news: all of that stuff can be submitted online.  You can just upload your documents and send them in!

If you don’t have a Commercial Activity License, you can also apply for that online.  A tax clearance certificate is just a document that shows your business is current on City of Philadelphia taxes – you can print one out yourself, right here, using your business’s official name and your Employer Identification Number (EIN – the one the Feds give you when you start your business).  Collect those docs, then upload them to phila.gov.

And then, finally, you can open a restaurant in Philadelphia.

2 Replies to “How to Open a Restaurant in Philadelphia”

    1. Hi Natocha! The EIN is issued by the federal government, not the state. You can keep it; however, you must still register any business activities in Philadelphia. You will be able to find more about business licenses and permits here.

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