Location Matters

Location can have a big impact on your restaurant’s success – including how long it takes to open your doors. Finding the right location requires careful planning and research, but it definitely pays off in the long run.

Know Your Needs Before you Lease

There’s a lot you need to know before you lease a space. For example, will the space need an expensive exhaust hood system? Will it require a several-months waiting period for a particular permit? Before signing anything, think about the items on this page.

Location Selection Worksheet

Helpful Tool: Bring this worksheet when you look at potential locations.

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Land Use and Zoning

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Some locations have land use and zoning restrictions that don’t allow restaurants. Don’t sign a lease before knowing if your preferred location is suitable for your type of operation.

Determine Your Restaurant’s Use Classification

Do this even before you start the search for your location – certain locations aren’t available for certain uses.

Talk with staff at the Seattle DCI (Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections) as early as possible to confirm how your use will be classified and which zones allow it. City staff determine use by reviewing your proposed floor plan (cooking area, seating, bar area, etc.). Relevant use types include:

  • Restaurant: Full restaurants, cafés, coffee shops, and most delicatessens.
  • Drinking Establishment: These could be businesses that also serve food, but may use most of their square footage for the bar and/or have a full liquor license and extended evening hours.
  • Food Processing: Better known as catering businesses, even if they have a retail counter to sell some of their goods – again, this classification is based on the ratio of space devoted to each function of the business.
  • Outdoor Seating: Restrictions in some zones/locations because of the potential for noise.

Get Expert Advice

Seattle DCI offers free land use coaching, which is also available by appointment for $250. DPD also offers free online Q/A sessions at Seattle DCI Questions. If you need more help, a restaurant consultant or architect can navigate the land use codes to help you find the right site with the right use allowed (or better yet, already permitted).

Research the Location’s Zoning and Permitted Use

Now that you know what zoning and use classification you need for your restaurant, you’re ready to evaluate potential properties.

Be careful! If there’s a restaurant currently in the location you’re looking at, don’t assume it gives you automatic use approval – the use or zoning is subject to change.

Compare Your Restaurant’s Use Classification with the Location’s Zoning and Permitted Use

  • If the permitted use does not fit your need, you will have to apply for a land use permit to allow your use.

Do You Need a ‘Use’ Permit?

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New Construction?

If you’re building from the ground up, land use approvals can be a significant challenge. Find out what kind of land use permits will be required for your project. Remember: in most cases, you have to obtain land use permit approvals before your construction permit will be approved.


Mobile Food Vending

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If you’re opening a food truck or other type of mobile food business, you will need to consider special permitting and licensing requirements.

Visit the Mobile Food Vending page to see what you’ll need.

Parking

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If you’re opening a restaurant in a former restaurant’s space, you may not have increased parking requirements. However, if you change the use of a location (like from retail to a restaurant) or increase the floor area, you might need more parking.

Consult with staff at the Seattle DCI (Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections) as early as possible to determine the parking requirements for your location.

Waterfront

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If your proposed property is within 200 feet of a shoreline (the edge of most lakes, Puget Sound, the Duwamish river, and the Lake Washington Ship Canal), it may be subject to shoreline development regulations, which can change your permit timeframe.  There are also some shoreline areas where restaurants are limited or not allowed.

A Shoreline Substantial Development Permit is required for most exterior alterations costing more than $5,000 (such as parking expansion or building modifications).  You can confirm that a specific proposal is exempt from the requirement for a Shoreline Permit by requesting a Shoreline Exemption.

Time & Cost

Under basic circumstances, a Shoreline Substantial Development Permit can take 5-6 months and cost $3,750-$6,250.


Historic Locations

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Find out if your site is a landmark building or in a historic district. If so, you’ll need to comply with design standards and/or special conditions.

If your location is a landmark building or in a historic district:

  • You must obtain a Certificate of Approval from Seattle Department of Neighborhoods before the Department of Planning and Development will issue a Building, Mechanical, Sign, or Master Use Permit.
  • Talk your proposal over with the Historic Preservation Program staff so you can incorporate the right standards into your improvement plans. Approval can take 2-6 weeks, or longer if your design requires adjustments.
  • See the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods FAQ to find out how to complete the process.

Outdoor Seating

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If you’re planning outdoor seating on public property, you’ll need a Right-of-Way Permit from Seattle Department of Transportation.

  • Tables and Chairs Permit – A Tables and Chairs Permit lets you put tables and chairs on the sidewalk immediately next to the business. Note that these seating arrangements are available for patrons and the general public alike. You can’t provide table service or serve alcohol at these tables and chairs.
  • Sidewalk Café Permit – If you want more permanent tables and chairs for outdoor eating, then a Sidewalk Café Permit is required. This permit allows you to offer table service and, with approval from the Liquor Control Board, alcoholic beverages at your outdoor tables. To qualify for a Sidewalk Café Permit, the outdoor space must meet all setback and clearance requirements.

Time & Cost

Tables and Chairs Permit: $172 field review fee plus $146 annual permit issuance fee; renews annually for $140.

Sidewalk Café Permit: $516 application review fee plus $146 permit issuance fee and takes about 5 weeks; renews annually for $140 plus $1.56 per square foot of sidewalk area


Serving Alcohol

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To sell beer, wine, and/ or spirits at your location, you’ll need a state liquor license. See State Specialty Licenses for more information.

Maximum Occupancy

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Check the location’s Certificate of Occupancy to see how many people are allowed and for what type of business. Is the certificate appropriate for your restaurant? If not, you may apply for a change in occupancy. This may require safety and strength improvements to the building. Some points to keep in mind:

  • Occupancy classification is determined by Seattle DCI (Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections) and considers the type of business, the size of the space, and how many people can safely be in the space. You can find these details on the building’s Certificate of Occupancy.
  • If the number of people you intend to serve is more than the “Occupant Load” number on the Certificate of Occupancy, you should ask Seattle DCI whether you need to apply for a change of occupancy.
  • If your restaurant area is 1500 square feet or more, you may need to apply for an Assembly Permit from the Fire Department. You may also need to install a sprinkler system and a fire alarm system if they are not already installed.
  • Get more info at Seattle Tip 120 – Getting a Certificate of Occupancy.

Sprinklers and Fire Alarm Systems

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Verify whether you’ll need to install or upgrade the sprinkler system. Sprinklers are usually required for:

  • Restaurants, bars, and banquet halls with occupancy of 100+.
  • Restaurants, bars, and banquet halls of 5,000+ square feet.
  • Establishments not located on the ground floor.
  • All nightclubs.
  • Establishments with 350+ square foot areas for dancing or watching performers.

Permits are required for installing or upgrading a sprinkler or fire alarm system.

“Substantial” Renovations

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In some situations, your restaurant may require the building to be upgraded. Seattle DCI (Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections) call this “substantial alteration.” It is important for you to talk to Seattle DCI as soon as possible to see if upgrades are required. If they are required, upgrades can be very expensive and the permitting process could take a long time.

Examples of changes that might require upgrades are:

  • Extensive remodeling. Installing equipment for your kitchen, electrical work, mechanical and plumbing are also considered part of the remodel.
  • If your space is not currently used as a restaurant or if you are going to significantly increase the size of the restaurant.
  • If your building has been mostly vacant for more than two (2) years.
  • If your building is bring and your restaurant will have more people than were in the building before.

If your project is determined to be “substantial”, you might need to:

  • Meet safety and fire codes.
  • Update the building’s structure for earthquake safety.
  • Make energy conservation improvements
  • Meet all accessibility barrier-free requirements (see following).

See Seattle Tip 314 – Seattle Building Code Requirements for Existing Buildings that Undergo Substantial Alterations.

Barrier-free Accessibility

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The building code requires that commercial spaces meet accessibility codes, so you may need things such as ramps or elevators for wheelchair users. When applying for a building permit, if your building isn’t up to code, you must make improvements.

  • Anything you build must meet current accessibility codes.
  • In addition, plant to commit 20% of your alteration costs to improv­ing accessibility, such as building ramps at the main entry or upgrading bathrooms.

See Seattle Tip 119 – Regulations for Barrier-Free Accessibility for more info.

Kitchen Exhaust System

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Exhaust hoods are complex systems that are expensive to build and install. Ensure your building has (or can accommodate) the exhaust hood(s) you need, particularly if your menu depends on fried, grilled, or broiled foods.

Types of Exhaust Hoods

  • Type II Hoods – Steam, Heat, and Odor: Type II Hoods are used for steam, vapor, heat, or odor removal. Type II hoods may vent through an exterior wall.
  • Type I Hoods – Grease and Smoke: Type I Hoods are used to remove grease and smoke; they must include an approved automatic fire-extinguishing system. Type I hoods must exhaust through the roof of a building – not via an exterior wall.

Tech Specs for Type I Hoods

Type 1 exhaust outlets must extend through the roof of a building, which can be a problem in multi-story buildings. In certain situations, the Building Official can approve a system that terminates at a sidewall, but this comes with many limitations that might affect your menu and facility. These limitations include, but are not limited to:

Noise

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Be sure your proposed renovations will meet Seattle’s Noise Ordinance requirements.

Grease Treatment

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Grease Traps or Interceptors are Required for All Restaurants

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. Incorrect sizing potentially can lead to maintenance problems and costly sewage backups (possibly including fines).

  • When looking at locations, check to see what devices are already in place, and if none, whether installation is feasible.
  • Grease interceptors should be located downstream of sinks and drains in the kitchen (e.g., 3-compartment sink or mop sink). The goal is to catch all plumbing drains (except for sanitary waste, such as from the bathrooms) and prevent fats, oils, and grease from clogging the drains.
  • Seattle Public Utilities provides more information about Fats, Oils, and Grease Disposal for Restaurants and Businesses

Get Expert Advice

A licensed contractor can help you determine the correct size of the grease interceptor, and install and maintain it.

Backups are Costly for Businesses

Fats, oils, and grease are found in common foods such as meat, fish, dairy, and sauces. Fats, oils, and grease can accumulate in your kitchen drains, privately owned side sewers, and the public sewer – which can result in a sewage backup into your business.

  • Restaurants are required to close voluntarily if a sewer backup occurs. Per Seattle Municipal Code, the business owner (that’s you!) is responsible for the clean-up costs related to a sewer backup.
  • Keeping fats, oils, and grease out of the sewer in the first place can reduce problems. Use best management practices.

Adequate Utility Services

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Are the electric, water, and gas capacities sufficient at your location – especially if you’re adding new equipment or sprinklers? Check with these utility providers for guidance:

Hazards

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Does your building have asbestos, lead paint, or other health and safety concerns? Don’t forget the additional time and cost these hazards could add to your construction.

  • Asbestos – Renovation projects require an asbestos survey conducted by an AHERA-certified building inspector. Handling and disposal of demolition debris must be in accordance with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency asbestos regulations. Check with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for more information about safe asbestos removal.