Running a Successful Nightlife Business

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A. Strengthening Your Nightlife Business

A variety of resources and programs exist to support the growth of businesses like yours within San Francisco. The San Francisco Business Portal is the ultimate resource for starting, running, and growing a business in the City, and the Portal includes comprehensive information and tailored tools to help you manage and grow your nightlife business. The Office of Small Business’ Small Business Assistance Center is also a valuable resource, capable of offering one-on-one assistance to small businesses. Additionally, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development offers grants and loan financing programs that may be available to help your business grow.

1. Business Development Programs

The Small Business Assistance Center can connect you to local economic development organizations that provide technical assistance, training and loan packaging services for small businesses. Through these organizations, you can access classes and one-on-one assistance on a variety of topics, including business planning, financial management, marketing, human resources, and legal services.

Additionally, the Invest in Neighborhoods Initiative provides focused, customized assistance in 25 neighborhood commercial districts. If you are looking to start your business in an Invest in Neighborhoods corridor, you should contact staff in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Find out more at

Some nonprofit economic development organizations have program offerings that may be of particular interest to individuals seeking to start nightlife businesses. For example, the Small Business Development Center has developed a Restaurant Program that includes one-on-one consulting and a variety of affordable workshops for San Francisco restaurant owners. Additionally, La Cocina offers affordable commercial kitchen space, technical assistance and access to market opportunities to help women from communities of color and immigrant communities develop their food businesses.

2. Accessing Loans, Grants, and Tax Incentives

The Office of Economic and Workforce Development offers a number of different City loan, grant and tax incentive programs that may assist the development of your business:

  • The Emerging Business Loan Fund, operated by Main Street Launch, offers loans ranging from $50,000 to $1,000,000 to qualifying commercial projects to support high impact businesses and projects with the potential to increase economic activity in San Francisco and to create jobs for low to moderate income individuals.
  • The Revolving Loan Fund, operated by Working Solutions, offers microloans ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, as well as loans from $25,000 to $50,000 available for established businesses that have been operating for two or more years.
  • The Office of Small Business is a trustee for the local non-profit Kiva. Kiva connects Bay Area entrepreneurs with 0% interest loans up to $10,000 to help start or grow businesses.
  • SF Shines provides grants and design assistance to property owners and merchants in qualifying neighborhoods for façade improvements and tenant improvements.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Certified Access Specialist (CASp) Small Business Assessment Program provides eligible businesses in qualifying neighborhoods with a free ADA assessment report and plan for compliance with ADA law.
  • The Central Market/Tenderloin Payroll Expense Tax Exclusion exempts businesses located within a defined Central Market/Tenderloin area from additional payroll taxes as they add jobs during any six years in an eight-year period.

Federal and state tax incentives may also be able to assist your business. Visit OEWD’s page on tax credits and incentives for more information about these programs.

B. Complying with State Laws

To succeed with your business, it’s critical that you comply with California liquor laws and the conditions attached to your liquor license. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) offers a helpful summary of some of the state laws and rules that liquor licensees must be comply with. Among others:

  • Restaurants with Type 41 or Type 47 liquor licenses must operate as “bona fide eating places,” meaning that they 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.
  • Bars, taverns, and nightclubs with Type 42 or Type 48 liquor licenses must adhere to certain operating standards, including requirements regarding providing adequate lighting on adjacent public sidewalks and parking lots under the licensee’s control, and removing litter daily from the premises, adjacent sidewalks and parking lots under licensee’s control.

Additional state laws regulate the employment of minors, signage requirements, and other requirements. The ABC may impose additional conditions upon the use of your liquor license that go beyond the state law requirements discussed in the summary.

The ABC offers free education courses for liquor licensees, their employees and license applicants. The Licensee Education on Alcohol and Drugs (LEAD) Program “provides the licensee and applicant with practical information on serving alcoholic beverages safely, responsibly, and legally, and preventing illicit drug activity at the licensed establishment.”

Additionally, businesses should be aware of the Unruh Civil Rights Act (“Unruh Act”), which prohibits sex-based discrimination, and its implications for nightlife businesses. As described in this handout about the Unruh Act produced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, promotions like “ladies nights” that offer discounted admission or services to only one sex have been found to violate the Unruh Act and should be avoided.

Finally, a state law adopted in 2012 requires all nightlife businesses with Type 48 liquor licenses to conspicuously post a notice informing patrons about human trafficking. In San Francisco, the notice must be posted in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and must contain required text as well as a list of telephone hotline numbers for victims of human trafficking. Find out more about this requirement on this page created by the California Department of Justice; the Department has also developed model notices that comply with the state requirements, available in English, Spanish, Traditional Chinese, and Simplified Chinese.

C. Being a Good Neighbor

Maintaining a positive relationship with your neighbors is critical to the longevity of your business. While it is only required for entertainment venues, the Entertainment Commission’s Good Neighbor Policy offers useful strategies for all nightlife business owners about being good neighbors, including:

  • Providing adequate outside lighting to illuminate adjacent streets and sidewalks;
  • Assigning employees to walk a 100-foot radius around the premises after closing time to pick up any discarded trash left by patrons;
  • Posting an employee at the entrance of the establishment to insure that patrons are urged to respect the quiet and cleanliness of the neighborhood as they wait to enter or are exiting the premises; and
  • Taking reasonable measures to ensure that sidewalks adjacent to the premises are not blocked during the business’ operation.

D. Safety & Security

The Entertainment Commission’s publication, Safety and Security Best Practices for Nightlife Establishments, offers guidelines developed by the Entertainment Commission and the Police Department to maintain safe nightlife businesses. Among other concepts discussed in the publication are:

  • The value of open communication with the Police Department and the community;
  • The importance of an evacuation plan;
  • Age verification technologies;
  • Appropriate precautions when dealing with promoters;
  • Strategies regarding party buses;
  • Maintaining security on your premises; and
  • How to effectively and appropriately respond to criminal incidents.


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