Frequently Asked Questions

There are many steps to take when opening or expanding your restaurant or mobile food business. Below are some of the most commonly asked questions that may help you as you move forward with your restaurant or mobile food business.

Start-Up

How long will it take for me to open my restaurant?

For some restaurants it can take less than a month to open while others can take well over a year or more. This depends on a variety of factors. Some factors may include, but are not limited to: whether you’re buying an existing restaurant and making little to no changes, whether you need or have your money/financing ready, location, lease negotiations, any build out/construction that may be needed, licenses and permits needed, finding and hiring staff (back and front of the house), getting the appropriate business insurance, purchase and installation of kitchen equipment and finding your point-of-sale (POS) system. Please refer to the Restaurant Success Map for an overview of the steps to opening a restaurant.

How much does it cost to start a restaurant?

This depends on the complexity of your restaurant concept, location, menu, and operational activities. It’s best to build the financial piece of your business plan outlining your revenues and expenses including your start-up costs to get a better idea of how much it will cost for you to start your restaurant.

How much does it cost to start a mobile food business?

This depends on a variety of factors such as: the cost of your food truck, trailer or cart, commercial kitchen space, location, menu and any other operation activities you plan to have for your business. It’s best to build the financial piece of your business plan outlining your revenues and expenses including your start-up costs to get a better idea of how much it will cost for you to start your mobile food business.

How do I find more information about the different neighborhoods in Seattle?

The Seattle Public Library is an excellent resource for market research on the different neighborhoods in Seattle. They have access to databases that can help you find statistics and trends to help you better understand your market. Go to the Seattle Public Library’s website for more information on their tools for businesses.

Connecting with local neighborhood organizations like Chambers and Business Associations is another great way to learn about different neighborhoods in Seattle. You can go to:

Permits & Licenses

What permits and licenses do I need to open a restaurant?

The kind of permits and licenses you need depends on the kind of restaurant you plan on opening and your location. Here is a list of the main permits & licenses:

  • State business license
  • City of Seattle business license
  • Business licenses for other jurisdictions (if operating outside of the City of Seattle)
  • State specialty licenses (liquor, lottery, cigarette/tobacco, gambling)
  • King County health permit for permanent food establishments
  • Use permits (conditional use, change or establish use)
  • Construction permits (minor interior alterations, small projects, remodels, new construction)
  • Trade permits (electrical, mechanical, refrigeration, plumbing, gas, and backflow)
  • Sprinklers and fire alarms
  • Sign and awning permits (installing or altering a permanent sign)
  • Right-of-way permits (outdoor seating, street use permits, temporary right-of-way permits)

Please refer to the Licensing and Permits sections of the Restaurant Success website for details about each of these permits and remember to get your final inspections and approvals before you open your doors.

What permits and licenses do I need to start a mobile food business?

The kind of permits and licenses you need depends on the kind of mobile food business you plan on starting. Here is a list of the main permits and licenses:

  • State business license
  • City of Seattle business license
  • Business licenses for other jurisdictions (if operating outside of the city of Seattle)
  • Liquor license (for catering only)
  • Washington State Labor & Industries approval (for food trucks, trailers, and some pre-fabricated buildings)
  • King County health permit for mobile food establishments (must have your approval from Washington State L&I before applying for your health permit)
  • Seattle Fire Marshal permit (for use of LPGs or open flame – wood or charcoal to prepare food)
  • Location vending permits (street/sidewalks/public plaza, private property, city parks)

Please refer to the Mobile Food Vending page of the Restaurant Success website for details about each of these permits.

I don't want to start a restaurant or mobile food business, but I would like to make and sell my food product(s) at farmers markets, grocery stores and/or other restaurants and cafes. How do I do this?

Depending on your business plan and how you plan to sell your food product(s), your operation would be regulated by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). In addition to the State and City business licenses, you would need to also be licensed or permitted by the WSDA:

  • Read about the Food Processor License which covers a wide variety of food products, you must operate out of a commercial kitchen, and does not have a gross revenue restriction. This license allows for wholesale sales.
  • Read about the Cottage Food Operation Permit which covers a limited list of food products, allows you to use your home kitchen, and currently has a $25,000 gross revenue restriction. The Cottage Food permit does not allow you to sell to cafes, restaurants, and grocery stores or make wholesale sales; however, the permit does allow you to sell direct retail sales to the end-user. Advertisements and payments can be done online, but products cannot be shipped online. You must deliver or have the buyer pick up the product.
  • Please go to the WSDA website for the applications, contact information, and more details about the Food Processors License and Cottage Food Operation Permit.
  • King County only permits retail operations operating from commercial kitchens. Some farmers markets’ operators may or may not need a permit from King County. Please see King County’s list of food permit exemptions and details for the King County Farmers Market Permit to determine if you need to be permitted by the WSDA or King County.

If I don’t know my menu yet, can I get a health permit?

No. You need to have your menu ready and be able to articulate how you plan to prepare the food on your menu before applying for a health permit. Your menu and the processes in which you prepare your menu help determine the type of equipment you need in your kitchen.

How do I park my mobile food truck on the street?

To park on any public right-of-way (street/sidewalk/public plaza), you need a street use permit form the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Do I need a permit for my business sign?

Yes, sign and awning permits are required from the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections to install, alter, or repair any permanent sign that’s visible from the public right-of-way. You’ll also need a permit to install or alter an awning, even if you’re just covering an existing awning with new fabric. You may also need the following permits/approvals:

  • Electrical Permit from the Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI) for electric signs.
  • Street Use Permit from Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) if your sign or awning extends over any public place. This permit processing time ranges from 1 day to 2 weeks depending on the details. You must get your Street Use Permit before applying to the Department of Planning and Development for your Sign Permit.
  • Certificate of Approval from the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) if your site is a landmark building or in a historic neighborhood. 

What’s the minimal food service required for a liquor license without building a full kitchen in my bar?

  • For a spirits, beer and wine restaurant license you must have at least eight (8) complete meals, which means an entrée and at least one side dish. Please see WAC 314-02-035 “What are the food service requirements for a spirits, beer, and wine restaurant license?” for the details of what is considered an “entrée” and a “side dish”.
  • For a beer and/or wine restaurant license, you must have minimum food service which is defined as “…items such as appetizers, sandwiches, salads, soups, pizza, hamburgers, or fry orders.” You still must be able to produce this food at the location and meet the requirements of being a “bona fide restaurant”. Please see WAC 314-02-045 “What is a beer and/or wine restaurant license?” for more details.
  • Tavern, Nightclub, and Snack Bar liquor licenses do not require food service, but please note that the Snack Bar liquor license does require “snack food” items such as peanuts, popcorn, and chips.

Please refer to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board website for more information on how to apply for a liquor license.

What are the floor space requirements for a restaurant liquor license?

The floor space requirements for a restaurant liquor license can be found in WAC 314-02-025.

How do I get outdoor seating for my restaurant?

If the outdoor seating area is located in the right-of-way (public property), such as a sidewalk, you need to apply for a sidewalk café permit or a table and chairs permit through the Seattle Department of Transportation. Please refer to the Space Needs section of the Restaurant Success website and scroll down to “Outdoor Seating” for more information about getting outdoor seating in the public right-of-way.

If the outdoor seating area is located on private property, you will need to check with the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections if you need to get any permits for building out your outdoor seating area. The best way to check is to bring your plans to SDCI’s Applicant Services Center and inquire about your project.

How long does it take to get a street food vending permit for my mobile food vending business or a sidewalk café permit for my restaurant?

Typically, it can take about 8 weeks to get these street use vending permits from the Seattle Department of Transportation from the time you officially submit your application. It is best to plan accordingly so you can have your permit ready for when you need it.

For example, if you are looking to open your sidewalk café by summer, it is best to start applying for your sidewalk café in the spring or if you are applying for a curb side vending permit for your mobile food truck, you can start applying when you apply for the health permit. Please note that if you apply for a street use permit before you receive your health department approval, you are still responsible for paying for the fees associated with reviewing the street use permit and the street use permit cannot be issued until SDOT has received all required documents including the health department approval.

Please refer to SDOT’s Street Use Vending page for more details and contact information about the various street use vending permits.

How long does it take to get the approval from Washington State Labor and Industries for my food truck (or trailer)?

Typically, it takes about 4 to 6 weeks from the time you officially submit your application plus the time it takes you to decide and put together the plans/design and required documents for the application for your food truck or trailer. Please note that the timeline for review and inspection depends on the complexity of your food truck or trailer.

Please note that your food truck or trailer needs to be approved by L&I before you can apply for the King County health permit.

Please refer to the Washington State L&I website for more details and contact information about the L&I inspection process.

How long does it take to get the health permit from King County?

Typically, it takes about 2 weeks from the time you officially submit your application plus the time it takes you to put together the required documents and plans for the application. Please note that once you have a draft of your application ready, it is best to call the plan reviewers to check their availability to try and schedule a time to go over your application before submitting.

Please refer to the Permits section (for restaurants) or the Mobile Food Vending page (for mobile food vendors) of the Restaurant Success website for more information about the King County health permits.

How long does it take to get a liquor license?

Typically, it takes 60-90 days from the time the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board receives your application. Please refer to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board website for more information on how to apply for a liquor license.

How long does it take to get a building permit?

In general, it is good to plan at least three (3) months to get the building permit plus the time it will take you to decide and put together the plans/design for your restaurant. However, please note that your timeline greatly depends on the complexity of your project, how large your project is, and the type of space you are looking at for your restaurant.

Please refer to the Permits section of the Restaurant Success website for more details about applying for Use Permits and Construction Permits.

Who can I contact if I have specific questions about my Washington State Business License or Liquor License?

The State of Washington has a list of quick contacts (Small Business Liaisons) for state government information, assistance and speakers for events. Many of the State Departments are represented. Take a look at the Small Business Liaison Flyer and find the contact person for the State department you are working with.

Remember to provide your permit or application number to help the contact person look up your information. In some cases, this may be your UBI number or a confirmation number that was provided to you at the time you submitted your online application.

Operations, Kitchen Equipment, and Commercial Spaces

Do I need a kitchen hood?

It depends. The menu you’ve developed and the kitchen equipment you need to prepare your menu helps determine if you need a hood. Per the 2012 Seattle Mechanical Code (SMC) chapter 5, Type I hoods are required to capture smoke and grease laden vapor generated from cooking. Type 2 hoods are required for other cooking appliances to capture and remove heat, odor, and moisture. Chapter 5 – page 17, also has a list of appliances that do not require hoods under 6KW (6000 Watts) of electrical power input.

Regarding special arrangements in terms of small but more than 6KW of total electrical power input capacity or any questions about whether your menu and equipment needed to prepare your menu require a hood, you can go to the Applicant Services Center at the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections (SDCI), located in the Seattle Municipal Tower on the 20th floor and ask for Mechanical Technical Back-up help. It is best to have your menu and list of kitchen equipment needed to prepare your menu with equipment specifications when going to the Applicant Services Center.

What kind of food can I serve so I don’t have to install a kitchen hood?

It’s best to start with the menu you would like to serve and then refer to the information listed above in the question “Do I need a kitchen hood?” to decide how you would like to modify your menu to fit your kitchen needs and budget.

Does the city help with finding mobile food vending locations?

No. It is the responsibility of the mobile food vendors to find their own location(s) and apply for the appropriate permits. Please refer to the Mobile Food Vending page of the Restaurant Success website for more information about locations and helpful links.

Does the city have a map of food truck spots?

No. Currently, the city does not have a map of the current approved vending locations. Please refer to the Mobile Food Vending page of the Restaurant Success website for more information about locations and helpful links.

How many bathrooms do I need to have for my restaurant?

The number of bathrooms you need is determined by the occupancy of your space. Here is a good rule of thumb to use:

  • 30 or fewer occupants: A single-occupant unisex restroom with 1 toilet and 1 wash basin is acceptable.
  • 31 – 150 occupants: 2 single-occupant unisex restrooms, each with 1 toilet and 1 wash basin is acceptable.
  • 151 or more occupants: Send the plans to senior plumbing staff for review.

Keep in mind that the occupant load is determined by International Building Code (IBC) Section 1004, including Table 1004.1.2, which will allow you to determine occupant loading for various spaces within the occupancy, such as the commercial kitchen, seating area and office space. If that number does not exceed 30, the single unisex restroom is acceptable.

For more information regarding the plumbing rules and regulations, please go to King County’s Plumbing Permit page or go to the Permits section of the Restaurant Success website to learn more about the different trade permits that you may need to build out your restaurant.

Will the bathroom in the current space be sufficient or will I need to upgrade it?

If you plan on having seating in your restaurant, the bathroom will need to be accessible to customers without having to enter through the kitchen area.

  • King County enforces the plumbing rules and regulations
  • The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections regulates ADA accessibility of bathrooms.

What kinds of sinks do I need in my kitchen?

Please refer to the appropriate plan guide for the health permit you will be applying for at the at the Public Health – Seattle & King County website to determine what type of sinks you will need for your kitchen.

  • Go to King County’s Food Protection Program and select the health permit you plan on applying for.
  • Each type of permit has its own plan guide which includes the type of sinks the health permit will require.

You can also refer to the Permits section (for restaurants) or the Mobile Food Vending page (for mobile food vendors) for more information about the different health permits.

Do I need a grease trap for my restaurant?

Yes. As part of the restaurant plan and plumbing review, Public Health-Seattle & King County will require a grease removal device in all new or remodeled restaurants that require a plumbing permit. Correct sizing of the grease removal device is the responsibility of the business and can be determined with the help of a licensed contractor. Incorrect sizing potentially can lead to maintenance problems and costly sewage backups (possibly including fines).

Please refer to the Space Needs section of the Restaurant Success website under “Grease Treatment” for more information.

How do I determine the maximum occupancy for my commercial space?

The occupant load is determined by International Building Code (IBC) Section 1004, including Table 1004.1.2, which will allow you to determine occupant loading for various spaces within the occupancy, such as the commercial kitchen, seating area and office space. A licensed contractor can help you calculate your occupant load based on the plans for your space.

The Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections issues the Certificate of Occupancy, which indicates the approved occupancy and use of the space.

I'm looking at a commercial space, how do I find past permits and learn more about the commercial space before considering if I want to sign a lease?

It is a good idea to do your homework on a commercial space you are looking at before signing a lease so you have a better understanding of what you’re getting into! There are several places available through the City and County where you can research information about different commercial spaces and properties:

  • Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections’ Tools and Resources page allows you to search online for permit and property records. You can search by address, permit number, or case number.
  • Seattle DCI’s Microfilm Library located on the same floor as the Applicant Services Center allows you to search for documents that may not be online but are on microfilm. Although many documents are available in SDCI’s online permit and property records, not all documents have been uploaded, in which case, you can search in the microfilm library.
  • King County Parcel Viewer allows you to search for property information and allows you to get direct links to King County Assessor’s eReal Property report and the Districts and Development Conditions report. You can search by address, parcel number, or by zooming in on the map and clicking on the parcel you want to look at.