What Permits Are Needed to Open a Restaurant in Wisconsin?

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Whether you're considering opening a pub for college students in Madison or a four-star upscale restaurant on beautiful Lake Geneva, understanding which licenses, permits and certificates you need to open a Wisconsin restaurant is crucial. Making sure you have your bases covered from the get-go can help you open your business easily and without added expenses.

Restaurant Permit

Restaurant permits are mandatory for businesses that prepare, sell or serve meals. These permits are issued by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services; the fees vary depending on the size of your restaurant, the types of food you serve, and delivery and catering policies. Before applying for a permit, review the Wisconsin Food Code, available online or through the Department of Health Services. Once your business is ready to open, call your local Department of Health Services office to be assigned an inspector. The inspector will send you an application for a permit; you can also set a date for an inspection. Once the inspector has assessed the premises to ensure it is fully operational and sanitary, you can legally open your restaurant.

Seller's Permit

All Wisconsin businesses that specialize in taxable retail sales must have a seller’s permit and must display it prominently. This permit, issued by the Department of Revenue, certifies that your business is registered to pay taxes. The permit may require a refundable $15,000 security deposit. Register online with the Department of Revenue to get your seller's permit.

Food Manager Certificate

Wisconsin restaurants must have at least one full-time Certified Food Manager on staff. A food safety training course must be attended within six months of opening your restaurant, and participants should sign up no later than three months after your restaurant opens. During the course, which can be taken in person or online, participants learn how to safely serve food. The course can usually be completed in 20 hours online. Participants must also pass a food manager exam, which can be retaken if necessary. The health inspector can provide information on courses when she completes the initial inspection.

Liquor License

If you plan to serve alcohol in your restaurant, you must also obtain a liquor license. “Class B” liquor licenses allow retailers to sell wine and liquor for consumption on and off the restaurant’s premises, allowing customers to purchase alcohol for carry-out. There are also “Class B” fermented malt beverage licenses, which allow dine-in and carry-out consumption of beer only. It is up to you which license you prefer. “Class C” wine licenses allow patrons to consume wine on the premises and restrict carry-out to a single bottle of wine purchased with a meal. “Class B” licenses are in limited supply; pricing varies, and it may be expensive to get this license.

To be approved for a liquor license, the applicant must be 21 years old, have lived in Wisconsin for 90 days, have successfully passed a beverage server training course and have a seller’s permit from the Department of Revenue. Contact your city clerk for an application and additional requirements. The city council or licensing board votes on whether the application should be approved; community members may object.

Operator's License

There must be at least one bartender in charge of the premises at all times with an operator’s license, which allows a bartender to serve liquor. Applicants must be at least 18 years of age, have no criminal record and have passed a responsible beverage server training course.

Occupancy Permit

In some cities, such as Milwaukee, an occupancy permit is required before you can open your business in a new or existing building. Once you apply, the building is inspected for electrical, plumbing and construction code violations. If the building is not in compliance, you must make updates and repairs to the building before you can open your doors. Check with your local building and code enforcement office to obtain the proper application forms.

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About the Author

Megan Martin has more than 10 years of experience writing for trade publications and corporate newsletters as well as literary journals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Iowa and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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