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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- Learn about a property’s zoning.
- You can find a property’s established use on its Certificate of Occupancy or in its permitting history. Seattle Tip 233 – Sources for Property Information provides sources for property information.
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?
- A Construction Permit to Establish Use may be required as part of your construction permit process. However, sometimes the size or type of the restaurant or the zoning requirements for that location may require an Administrative Conditional Use. If that’s the case, you must apply for the Master Use Permit for Administrative Conditional Use before your construction permit application.
- The Master Use Permit for Administrative Conditional Use can take 5-7 months and cost $3,750-$5,000, with additional hourly fees charged if the project is controversial or appealed. Keep in mind that while this permit is usually approved (with some conditions negotiated), approval is not guaranteed.
- See Seattle Tip 102 – Small Business: Getting Your Use and Building Permit for more info.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
To sell beer, wine, and/ or spirits at your location, you’ll need a state liquor license. See State Specialty Licenses for more information.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
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.
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
- Only one Type I hood per restaurant, no more than 6 feet in length.
- No broilers can be installed under the hood.
- Fryers must be rated for 40 pounds or less of grease.
- Deep fat fryers with vegetable oils require a portable Class K extinguisher within 30 feet. They may also require (a) UL300 listed fire suppression system(s). See Seattle Tip 5002 – Requirements Regarding Commercial Deep Fat Fryers, Portable Fire Extinguishers and Range Hoods.
- Solid-fuel cooking equipment requires a separate exhaust system and (a) Class K portable fire extinguisher(s).
Be sure your proposed renovations will meet Seattle’s Noise Ordinance requirements.
- Outdoor seating and mechanical units (such as HVAC and refrigeration) are major noise generators – these projects require mitigation measures to keep things quieter.
- During your plan or permit review, your project will be screened for potential noise issues, especially if your restaurant is at the border of a commercial zone and a residential zone.
- See Seattle Tip 118 – Making Sure Your Commercial Project Meets Seattle’s Noise Ordinance Requirements.
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
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.
- 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.