Getting Your Permits

< Starting a Nightlife Business in SF | Running a Successful Nightlife Business >

Before You Apply for Permits

It’s a good idea to meet with any relevant permitting agencies well before you actually submit any permit applications. Meeting with the relevant agencies before submitting your permits can answer questions you might have and help you understand the potential roadblocks you might face in acquiring the approvals needed to launch your business. When you meet with a permitting agency, be sure to be provide as much specific, detailed information about your business as possible. Ultimately, you may decide to adjust your business model based on this information; at the very least, you will gain a better understanding of the length of time and potential costs you may face in the process.

In order to start a nightlife business in San Francisco, you’ll need to have permits from a variety of City and state agencies. This section provides a broad overview of some of the different permits you may need to acquire and identifies some of the considerations you will want to be aware of as you navigate the permit process.

As you get started, be sure to visit the San Francisco Business Portal, the ultimate resource for starting, running, and growing a business in the City. With comprehensive information and tailored tools, the portal helps you navigate the permitting process and quickly learn what it takes to be compliant.

Throughout the permitting process, the Small Business Assistance Center is a valuable resource, capable of offering one-on-one assistance to small businesses. The SBAC is located in Room 110 at City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102, and can be reached at (415) 554-6134 and sbac@sfgov.org.

Additionally, your district supervisor’s office can be an important resource. This map can help you identify your supervisor and can provide you with contact information for his or her office.

A. Building Permits & Zoning

Before You Apply

Early in the planning of your business, you should visit the Planning Department’s Planning Information Center (PIC) and discuss your project and your proposed site with the planning staff there. The PIC is located at 1660 Mission Street, First Floor, and may also be reached at (415) 558-6377 and pic@sfgov.org.

You should also direct questions about building permits and the scope of your project to Department of Building Inspection (DBI) staff at 1660 Mission Street, First Floor, San Francisco CA 94103, or at (415) 558-6088. For more complex projects, or to get DBI staff interpretations of specific code provisions, you may also seek a pre-application meeting for your project with DBI staff. For more information on the pre-application review process, see this pre-application packet.

Building permits, which are required for any change of use to a property or and significant construction, are issued by the Department of Building Inspection (DBI). To acquire a building permit, you will need to submit an application to DBI, which will confirm that the property meets minimum building standards. The application will then be routed to the Planning Department for a review to ensure that your proposed use is consistent with the General Plan and the Planning Code. DBI staff will also identify other departments that you will need approval from in order to complete the permitting process.

Depending on the scope of any construction work you are envisioning, you may need to submit plans along with your permit application. You may also need to acquire a separate electrical, plumbing, or sign permit through DBI.

New commercial buildings and remodeling projects must meet certain accessibility requirements. DBI’s What You Should Know About Disabled Access Requirements provides more information about these requirements and their impact on construction projects; the department has also developed a number of information sheets related to ADA access. As described in Starting a Nightlife Business in San Francisco, additional accessibility resources are available from the Small Business Assistance Center, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the California Department of Rehabilitation.

If you are interested in having outdoor tables and chairs or in creating a parklet (using parking spaces for public space and seating) at your business, you will need to contact the Department of Public Works. The Merchant’s Corner at SF Better Streets provides information for business owners about the City processes for these and other street improvements.

If your prospective use of a property is conditionally permitted, you will need to have a valid Conditional Use Authorization. The property you are moving into may already have a valid authorization for the use you are intending, although even a valid conditional use expires after three years of inactivity. If you do not have a valid Conditional Use Authorization, you will need to receive approval by the Planning Commission during a public hearing, a process that can add significant time and expenses to your project. For more information on this process, consult the staff at the Planning Department and review the application packet for a Conditional Use Authorization.

If your property requires neighborhood notification – which is required for changes of use to bars, restaurants and entertainment venues in certain zoning districts – you will be required to submit certain additional materials to DBI in conjunction with your Building Permit Application. After it is determined that the application is complete, you will be required to post a notice (designed by the Planning Department) on the site of your business for thirty days. During that period, if a neighbor files for Discretionary Review of the project, the Planning Commission is obligated to review the application at a hearing. If no Discretionary Review application is filed before the end of the thirty day period, the Building Permit Application will be routed to DBI for continued review.

Development projects in San Francisco will also trigger development impact fees. The Planning Department maintains a helpful web page collecting a wide range of information about impact fees.

B. Food & Beverage Permits

Before You Apply

For questions about the health permit process, consult with your district health inspector at 415-252-3804, or speak with the Department of Public Health’s plan check staff at 415-252-3800. You may also contact the Environmental Health office at 1390 Market Street, Suite 210, San Francisco, CA 94102, or via phone at (415) 252-3800 or email at EnvHealth.DPH@sfdph.org.

1. Plan Check

If you are planning to do any new construction or remodeling on the food or beverage preparation areas or restrooms in your facility, including changing the premises’ kitchen equipment or seating configuration, your plans will need to be reviewed by the Department of Public Health. The Department will review these plans and inspect your construction. For more information on this process, review the department’s information on plan check procedures. You will need to pay a deposit in order for the completion of the plan check.

2. Food Permit to Operate/Food Safety Certification

Every establishment seeking to sell food or beverages must acquire a Permit to Operate through the Department of Public Health’s Food Safety Program. Find out more about the application process on the Department’s web site. There is a one-time application fee for a Permit to Operate as well as an annual renewal fee.

To acquire a Permit, you will also be required to sign a declaration that you will comply with all laws relating to healthy and safe working conditions, confirm that you have any required workers’ compensation insurance, and demonstrate that at least one employee has been certified in food safety.

3. Food Handler Cards

Additionally, under state law, any employee handling food in your establishment must possess a valid Food Handler Card, issued after the completion of a training course and passing an exam. The Department’s web site maintains information about this requirement and a list of card providers.

4. Point of Sale Registration

Additionally, businesses using point of sale (POS) systems must register those systems with the Department of Public Health’s Weights & Measures Program annually and pay a fee.

C. Fire Permits

Before You Apply

You may contact the Fire Department‘s Bureau of Fire Prevention Permit Section staff at 698 2nd Street, Room 109, San Francisco, CA 94107, and at (415) 558-3303 and Fire.Permits@sfgov.org. For more complicated construction projects, you may also seek a pre-application meeting with the Fire Department’s Plan Check staff. This form identifies the background information required in order to schedule a pre-application meeting.

Any nightlife business with a maximum capacity above 49 occupants is required to have a place of assembly permit issued by the Fire Department. A nightlife business will typically need an “A-2” assembly permit, which allows for the sale of food or beverages.

The Fire Department can help you understand the maximum approved occupant load connected to your place of assembly permit, as well as the requirements associated with the permit. This checklist offers helpful guidance about the fire prevention laws your establishment must comply with. The Fire Department has also published these guidelines on the use of candles and open-flame decorative lighting in places of assembly.

D. Liquor License

Before You Apply

As you begin, you should connect with the San Francisco Police Department‘s ABC Liaison Unit (“ALU”). The ALU oversees all premises with permanent liquor licenses, and may be reached at 415-575-6067.

As part of your pre-application process, you should also visit the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (“ABC”) to find out more about the process of applying for or transferring a liquor license to your business. The ABC’s San Francisco office is located at 33 New Montgomery St., Suite 1230, San Francisco, CA 94105, and may be reached at (415) 356-6500 and SFO.Direct@abc.ca.gov.

In order to sell beer, wine, or spirits, at your premises, you’ll need to have a license issued by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (“ABC”) that is consistent with the premises you are operating. To understand the differences between license types, the ABC offers a summary of common license types and their basic privileges. The ABC also maintains this list of answers to frequently asked questions.

In brief, the most common license types a nightlife business might seek out are:

Type 41 (“On Sale Beer & Wine – Eating Place”) The business may sell beer and wine but not spirits.

The business must operate as a “bona fide eating place,” meaning that the business must make actual and substantial sales of meals during the normal meal hours that they are open. The premises must have suitable kitchen facilities and supply an assortment of foods commonly ordered at various hours of the day.

Minors are allowed on the premises.

Type 42 (“On Sale Beer & Wine – Public Premises”) The business may sell beer and wine but not spirits.

Food service is not required.

Minors are not allowed on the premises.

Type 47 (“On Sale General – Eating Place”) The business may sell beer, wine and spirits.

The business must operate as a “bona fide eating place,” meaning that the business must make actual and substantial sales of meals during the normal meal hours that they are open. The premises must have suitable kitchen facilities and supply an assortment of foods commonly ordered at various hours of the day.

Minors are allowed on the premises.

Type 48 (“On Sale General – Public Premises”) The business may sell beer, wine and spirits.

Food service is not required.

Minors are not allowed on the premises.

This flowchart outlines the application process for a liquor license. A business seeking to acquire a license to sell beer and wine (i.e., a Type 41 or Type 42 license) may purchase such a license from an existing license holder or may apply directly to the ABC, which may issue a new license. By contrast, the number of licenses to sell spirits in addition to beer and wine (Type 47 and Type 48 licenses) is determined by a county’s population under state law. Based on the existing formula, no new general licenses may be issued to businesses in San Francisco, so any business seeking a Type 47 or 48 license will need to purchase one from an existing license holder.

Your ability to acquire a license may be impacted by your choice of location. Depending on the zoning district of the property you are seeking to use, there may be restrictions imposed on your ability to acquire a liquor license. For example, at present, general liquor licenses for use in businesses in the Mission Alcoholic Beverage Special Use District (see map here) must be acquired from businesses within the district.

Depending on the location you’ve selected, it is likely that you will need to demonstrate that your proposed business will serve the “public convenience or necessity” (PCN) in order to receive your license. For Type 41 and 47 (i.e., restaurant) licenses, the PCN decision is made by the ABC. For Type 42 and 48 (i.e., bars and nightclubs) licenses, the Board of Supervisors may, within 90 days, determine that the license will serve the public convenience or necessity, satisfying this requirement.

Additionally, if your business involves the production of alcohol (i.e., distilleries, breweries or wineries), or the importation of alcohol from outside the United States, you will need a permit from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

E. Entertainment Permits

Before You Apply

Contact the Entertainment Commission to discuss your business concept and the requirements for an entertainment permit. The Commission may be reached at (415) 554-7793 and is located in Room 453 of City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Permits to host live performances – including musicians, DJs, comedy, poetry readings, and more – are issued by the Entertainment Commission. Unlike liquor licenses, entertainment permits are not transferable between parties, so you will need to apply for your own entertainment permit even if you acquire a preexisting entertainment venue.

The Entertainment Commission offers several different types of permits, including:

  • Place of Entertainment permits for entertainment venues;
  • Limited Live Performance permits, which allow businesses that are not entertainment venues – including cafes, bars, restaurants, and art galleries – to incorporate live performances as an accessory use on their premises; and
  • Extended Hours permits, for any business seeking to operate between 2:00am and 6:00am, regardless of whether it provides entertainment or not.

After you submit your application for an entertainment permit, the Entertainment Commission will circulate your application to relevant City departments. The departments must complete all necessary inspections and report their determinations to the Entertainment Commission within twenty business days. Ultimately, the Entertainment Commission will review your application at a hearing, where it may apply conditions, including conditions recommended by the Police Department, to your permit.

If you are applying for a Place of Entertainment permit or an Extended Hours permit, you are required to submit a security plan along with your permit application. You should proactively engage with the Police Department and the Entertainment Commission in the development of your security plan. Additionally, you should review the Entertainment Commission’s publication, Safety and Security Best Practices for Nightlife Establishments, which offers guidelines on best practices in maintaining safe nightlife businesses.

Applicants for entertainment permits are required to conduct neighborhood outreach as part of the permit application process. Review these Guidelines for Meaningful Neighborhood Outreach for more information about the types of outreach that meet this requirement.

F. Business Registration & Seller’s Permit

To conduct business in San Francisco, you must possess a Business Registration Certificate issued by the Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector. An application for a certificate must be submitted within fifteen days of starting business in San Francisco, and the registration must be renewed annually. For more information about business registration and fictitious business names, see these resources produced by the Small Business Assistance Center. For information about property taxes, contact the Office of the Assessor-Recorder.

Additionally, you will need to obtain a seller’s permit from the California State Board of Equalization. You may apply for a seller’s permit using the state’s online eReg system. The permit is free and valid for the duration of your business.

< Starting a Nightlife Business in SF | Running a Successful Nightlife Business >