As many restaurant owners know, there’s more to owning a successful restaurant than landing a trendy location or coming up with a great concept. While these things are important, understanding food handling and food safety practices is essential if you want your restaurant to be successful. It’s the first thing you tackle when you are starting a restaurant.

The growing number of health department regulations, food handling licenses, and overall safety restrictions can make any new restaurant owner’s head spin. Here, we focus on the fundamentals of the industry by exploring restaurant regulations and specifics you need to know in order to adhere to restaurant food safety standards.

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Federal Agencies Responsible for Restaurant Food Safety Regulation

There are a number of federal agencies that work together to safeguard the public by monitoring the food supply, which aid restaurant safety. Every restaurant owner should be familiar with these agencies.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees food and safety regulations by regulating the majority of all food and food ingredients offered for sale. The FDA executes these regulatory requirements that all restaurants must follow in several ways. Below are two examples:

  • The FDA Food Code explains best practices for food handling and preservation to other governmental entities. In turn, others may use the Food Code as a model to develop or update their own restaurant food safety regulations and to be consistent with national food regulatory policy.
  • Do you have a special sauce that you plan to sell at the front of your restaurant? You should be aware of the Federal Food Labeling Standard that the FDA began implementing in 1994 and revised recently in 2013. Restaurants that decide to sell packaged food items need to meet certain compliance criteria. The Federal Food Labeling Standard provides guidance on general food labeling requirements, ingredient lists, and nutrition labeling.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors foodborne illnesses and plays a vital link between food regulatory systems and food producers. The CDC assisted in the creation of various food safety policies like the Food Safety Modernization Act, which strengthened standards on poultry in response to salmonella outbreaks.

Similar to the CDC, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) aims to provide leadership in those areas. The ODPHP has created several educational resources for the public, including the Dietary Guidelines.

The Dietary Guidelines, which are updated every five years, provide information on new health findings and give recommendations that promote a healthier lifestyle. Due to its importance in our health-conscious community, restaurant owners should be aware of any shifts in healthy eating habits so they can refine their menu and adapt portion sizes as appropriate.

Your local health safety departments — both city and state — have specific regulations that affect restaurant operations as well. So it’s important to check the state public health department and become familiar with local policies and restrictions.

Other standards and regulations that affect restaurants

Aside from the restaurant food safety regulations monitored by the government, there are a few other things that affect the operations of a new restaurant.

PCI compliance

Major data breaches at big companies like Wendy’s and PF Chang’s raise a growing concern about credit card and data security in the restaurant industry. That’s why being PCI compliant is essential to ensure better data security. The majority of states have specific laws surrounding data security, so you should do some research on that as well. Restaurant owners should follow tips on securing customer data to prevent fraudulent behaviors.

The Affordable Care Act

The Affordable Care Act enforces an employer mandate that requires employers with more than 50 full-time workers to offer health benefits. This can increase your overhead costs, so be sure build it into your operating budget. Employers who fail to comply risk significant penalties.


Under federal law, nonexempt (hourly) employees are entitled to overtime at the rate of 1.5 times their regular rate of pay for all time worked over 40 hours in a workweek. An employee may be exempt from overtime eligibility if, among other criteria, they earn a minimum amount of salary.

The U.S. Department of Labor has announced a Final Rule that would raise the minimum salary level necessary to qualify for the federal overtime exemption by a substantial margin — from $23,660 to $47,476. Implementation of this Rule, however, was temporarily blocked by a federal court and its fate is uncertain as it’s pending review on appeal. This gives restaurant employers several options when it comes to compensation and hiring: Keep salaries below the threshold and potentially incur overtime costs, raise employee salaries above the threshold, or limit workers’ hours, potentially by hiring more staff.

Bear in mind that salary level alone is not sufficient to qualify an employee as “exempt” from overtime pay (e.g., the job functions generally must be exempt in nature), so be sure to check with your counsel to determine whether exempt classification is warranted.

Tracking employee hours can help you better manage overtime at your restaurant. To make this process easier, use a payroll service that automatically uploads timecards and calculates employee salaries, hourly rates, and overtime.

Minimum wage

When managing your front of house and back of house employees, you’ll wan’t to have a thorough understanding of the minimum wage laws. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, but states — and even counties or cities, in some cases — often set their own minimum wage at a higher rate. Additionally, many states are planning to increase their minimum wage in the next few years. Make sure to familiarize yourself with any minimum wage plans in your state or city so you can determine how best to manage future increases through hiring and production.

Permits and Licenses for Your Restaurant

Once you understand the regulations and policies that your restaurant must abide by, it’s time to take the plunge to register your business and obtain a business license.

In general, an owner must first select a business name and then register it with the government. Some of the legal paperwork that falls within the business registration process includes:

  • Applying for an Employer Identification Number
  • Selecting a business structure (sole proprietorship, LLC, etc.)
  • Registering for state and local taxes

Governmental entities at the city and state level may require additional business licenses. Be sure to check your state’s business licensing guidelines for additional information.

Some cities and states require restaurants to have a food handling and safety license, which usually involves a preparation and review process. This can include, but is not limited to: classroom certifications, online training courses, initial onsite inspections, and recurring health and safety inspections throughout the year.

Aside from the city and state health departments, you may also need additional permits from various agencies such as your local fire and police departments, weights and measures department, wastewater department, and department of public works, to name just a few.

Finally, there are other permits and licensing fees that don’t necessarily pertain to food and safety but are important for restaurant owners to evaluate and potentially carry out. Here are some additional questions to ask yourself in order to determine what other licenses or permits you may need to obtain:

  • Are you building a new facility from the ground up or renovating an existing space? Those building a new facility need to apply for zoning and building permits. Blueprints for your newly established restaurant may also need the approval of city departments before construction occurs.

  • Will you be serving liquor? If you are manufacturing or selling liquor at your restaurant, you’re required to obtain a state- and city-specific liquor license.

  • Will there be music or TVs at the restaurant? Paying a subscription to stream services like Spotify doesn’t cut it, and your restaurant may face major fines without securing proper public performance rights. First, check out the Copyright Act to see if your restaurant meets the criteria for the performance licensing fee. Usually, restaurants can pay an annual blanket licensing fee that is divided up between the performance arts organizations (PRO): BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC.

How to pass a restaurant inspection

Agencies at the federal and state level will send out an offical to assess food handling and workplace safety. And these inspections can be rigorous when you open a restaurant, which is why it is important for you and your staff to be on your A game.

To prepare for food handling inspections, here’s a restaurant inspection checklist:

  • Educate your staff. It is important to inform your staff about the restaurant health inspection and provide education on food handling.
  • Stress employee hygiene. All employees are directly responsible for their hygiene and their cleanliness is graded during a health inspection. To reiterate this, many restaurants post signs in bathrooms prompting employees to wash their hands as an effective reminder.
  • Check your drains. To prevent bacteria from building up, check your drains regularly and call a plumber immediately if you notice the drainage system slowing.
  • Assess food temperature control. Make sure your cold food is cold and your hot food is hot. In general, cold food should be kept below 40° F and hot food shouldn’t fall below 140° F. Rapid growth of bacteria can occur between 41° F and 140° F, so it is crucial to keep food from falling into this danger zone.
  • Evaluate expiration dates. Check perishable foods regularly. Throw out anything questionable — it’s not worth the health risk.
  • Be aware of potential contamination. Keep similar foods stored together and properly contained to mitigate cross-contamination risk.
  • Emphasize restaurant sanitation. Whether it is the kitchen, the dining room, or the bathrooms, all surfaces and floors should be properly sanitized.
  • Make sure you take care of pests. Ensure that your restaurant has gone through the proper pest control by applying pest prevention techniques in your facility.
  • Store waste correctly. Dispose of all solid waste from food prep daily and keep the trash area clean. Any waste can create an infestation of bugs, mold, or other health hazards, which could compromise your inspection.
  • Keep operational records. In the event that something faulty shows up during the inspection, it is important to have proper operational documentation. Ensuring that you went through all the proper protocols leading up to a health inspection can better prepare you for any unexpected results.

In addition to food handling and sanitation, some federal and state agencies may inspect your restaurant to assess workplace safety. Be sure to assess the OSHA inspection list to ensure employee safety at your restaurant.

Restaurant penalites and fines

Not abiding by restaurant safety regulations, disregarding local health policies, failing to pass health inspections, and not acquiring the correct permits are just a few of the situations that can result in steep fines. To avoid these unwanted costs, it is important to be aware of when you could face fines.

Types of violations that result in costly restaurant fines include:

  • Cleanliness and sanitation of surfaces (both food and non-food handling surfaces)
  • Equipment and utensil sanitation and storage
  • Adequate hand washing
  • Presence of poisonous or toxic items
  • Food temperatures (both when stored and prepared)
  • Food labeling violations
  • Wage violations

As you can tell, a lot goes into keeping our food safe. Restaurant regulations, licenses, and inspections can get complex but staying compliant with industry standards is mandatory. Understanding the basic ways to manage a restaurant, principles of restaurant safety, and the fundamentals of health policies and regulations sets you up for success as a restaurant owner.