Congratulations on deciding to open a new restaurant in Los Angeles. While a huge investment of time, money and resources, it can also be spiritually rewarding and financially lucrative.
As you begin to plan and prepare for the launch of your new restaurant, there are a number of things you need to know about working with the City of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County and the State of California when it comes to permits, approvals and timing.
For starters, you’ll be working with several different agencies, including the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety (LADBS), which is notoriously difficult when it comes to granting building permits. In addition, food service establishments are required to attain permits and pass inspections that office and retail spaces do not.
Don’t worry. We’re here to help. And truth be told, our motives are a bit self-serving. As LA residents and foodies, we love new restaurants as much as we love permits!
We developed this guide to give you a thorough understanding of the restaurant permitting process and who you’ll be working with. We’ve also included tips we use to expedite the building permitting process, saving time and money.
Mike Robinson (not named after the family dog)
President, Permit Place
Why Permits are Required
Site Investigation Reports
LA Restaurant Permits
Plan Check Documents
Building Permit Timing
Expediting the Permit Process
To keep Los Angeles businesses open and its citizens healthy, safe, and informed, the city launched corona-virus.la. This site is a hub for the latest news, updates, and resources related to COVID-19. The resources page includes an entire business section that links to financial support and fund options, legal assistance programs, PPE supplier connections, and more. One resource worth calling attention to for LA restaurants is the Open For Business program. It offers restaurants commission-free digital order tools to expand contactless food options for your customers. This resource is worth spending some time with no matter what stage of development your restaurant is.
Permitting is all about safety. The city, county and state issue building codes, health codes and construction standards designed to ensure the safest environment for employees, patrons and the citizens of Los Angeles. This means protecting against fire, structural failures, improper waste disposal, unauthorized sale of controlled substances (e.g., alcohol), and much more.
Your new restaurant will likely live in a repurposed restaurant or require the alteration of an existing office or retail space. In the permit world, the latter is known as “change of use” and requires additional steps, fees and time.
In either scenario, you’ll want to make alterations to the interior and exterior to accommodate the look, feel, function and flow of your restaurant. These changes are known as tenant improvements.
Generally speaking, tenant improvements will include:
For any of these improvements, you’ll be required to secure permits and approvals from various governmental agencies, including: building and safety, health, fire, planning and zoning, and more (see the full list of LA permitting departments here).
In addition, restaurant tenant improvements will almost certainly require the involvement of the:
As you dive into this resource, and as you work through the permitting process, there are terms you’ll need to know. The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety put together the following glossary:
The process of securing building permits for a new restaurant in Los Angeles is a lot like submitting a book report in elementary school (but with fewer stickers).
For the purposes of illustration, here’s how the building permit process works at a very high and over-simplified level. Agency in this scenario is the governmental department who grants your permit.
The rest of this page explores the process of securing your building permits in detail. If you have any questions, our team can help.
In the permitting game, there is time and money to be saved by working with an organization that thoroughly understands the rules and systems associated with obtaining permits in LA.
It’s likely you worked with a real estate agency and/or your franchisor to find your location. Hopefully it offers excellent accessibility as well as visibility.
A critical first step before going all in on this location is to conduct a site investigation report. A site investigation report, or feasibility study, answers many important questions about a property before you invest significant time and money in design and permitting.
Specifically, feasibilities should always answer the following questions:
Other questions, such as those listed below, will be specific to the scenario and more complicated to answer, but should be covered in the report.
Here’s a sample scenario: A franchise restaurant plans to open a new food service establishment in Los Angeles. They have identified two sites of interest.
A feasibility study is going to reveal that the old bank will require a change of use permit to be used as a restaurant. This means the building will need to be connected to the sewer system and require a grease interceptor to be installed. In addition, extra parking will need to be added close by or a valeting service made available because there are not enough parking spaces.
In other words, Site 1 will delay the opening of the restaurant by more than one year, and cost tens of thousands more in additional construction and fees. Site 2 can enjoy the full use of the land without entitlements or extra construction.
Feasibility studies give you all the information needed to make the best business decision for your business.
To aid in this process, it is always recommended to work with a permit expediter familiar with the location and working with restaurants. Reason being:
Your permit expediter will need the following information from you to complete a site investigation report.
Possible Step 1B
In an ideal scenario, the feasibility study uncovers that you are “allowed by right” to enjoy the full use of the land. This means you can build your restaurant without getting a planning approval or entitlement approval, and you can go straight to permitting (cutting time by possibly a year).
However, if the site is not property zoned, another outcome is you’ll need to submit for entitlements.
We like the Urban Land Institute’s definition of Entitlements: “Legal rights conveyed by approvals from local jurisdiction governmental entities to develop a property for a certain use, intensity, building type or building placement.”
In other words, a government agency “entitles” you or a developer to legally use a piece of land, build a structure and/or operate a business in a way that differs from the established rules and regulations.
The reason entitlements exist is because it’s not always possible to follow city, county or state regulations depending on the specifics of your scenario. Examples of when entitlements may be required include:
Entitlements need to be issued before any permits will be approved. They will add costs and time to the project, but without them your project may be dead in the water.
In a utopian society, there is one permitting department and you’d have one point of contact to get all required plans reviewed, permits approved and inspections passed.
I have some bad news. Los Angeles isn’t quite at utopian-level just yet.
There are two primary entities you’ll work with: The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, and the County of Los Angeles Public Health. Depending on what needs to be done, there may be a couple others, all of which are introduced below.
The two government agencies you’ll work with throughout the construction of your restaurant are the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety and the County of Los Angeles Public Health.
LADBS is going to be the main agency with which you (and your contractors) will work. It’s where you’ll get your building permits and occupancy certificate. They will conduct a plan check, issue building permits, and then perform inspections throughout the process.
Specifically, LADBS reviews your construction documents for handicap accessibility (ADA) and checks all proposed mechanical, electrical and plumbing improvements to ensure they meet the current building codes.
They also assess whether your project meets the new “green code.”
This department makes sure your restaurant complies with state and local health codes and standards. Like the LADBS, they’ll also perform a site plan check, reviewing your construction plans for building materials, surface materials (countertops), equipment, equipment installation, and ventilation systems.
In the City of Los Angeles, you will not be able to get your building permits approval until attaining health approval. That said, you will be working with both agencies simultaneously throughout your construction project.
Depending on what you have planned for your restaurant, there are a couple other departments to familiarize yourself with.
What permits you’ll need will largely depend on your location, site and the type of restaurant you’re planning to build. As you go through this process, there are two main types of permits you’ll need to be aware of:
In this guide we focus more on construction permits as that’s our area of expertise.
Construction permits are required to begin work on your restaurant and come before you’re allowed to open your doors to patrons.
Operational permits pertain to the running of your restaurant and what it can legally sell. You’ll need to secure and maintain these permits while in business.
There are two main types of liquor licenses for restaurants:
To be awarded either license, your restaurant must be a “bona fide eating place.” In other words, it must:
In addition, before issuing a state liquor license to you, the ABC requires that you obtain any zoning permits that may be required by your local municipality. These zoning permits are most often called Conditional Use Permits (CUP) and, although the CUP process may occur concurrently with the state process, it is different from a liquor license.
A CUP permits the serving of alcohol on the property itself and may remain for use by a future business if ownership changes. Conversely, a liquor license is issued to the owners of the business allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages at a particular location.
Once you have your liquor license you may be able to bring it with you if you choose to relocate your restaurant. However, you will still likely need to obtain a new CUP.
Both local municipalities and the ABC closely monitor the number of restaurants serving alcohol to avoid:
If either case exists, you may need to obtain a finding of “public convenience and necessity” (PCN), which may include an additional public hearing. By state law, if the local municipality does not grant a PCN, then the ABC cannot approve your license application.
It can take between three and 12+ months to obtain zoning approval. The time to get ABC approval can also vary, but not as much. You can expedite the process, but in the City of Los Angeles, this can double your application fee.
Submittal fees for a CUP in the City of Los Angeles are approximately $8,000 for standard review and $14,500 for expedited review.
For your state license, submittal fees are approximately $650 for a Type 41 license and approximately $12,000 for a Type 47 license.
If a new license is unavailable, you may be able to purchase an existing license, which could cost about $30,000 to $50,000.
Finally, it’s time to submit your plans to the appropriate agency for review and permit approval.
To ensure the fastest turnaround, it’s imperative that you put your best foot forward the first time. Requests for additional information or properly formatted documents require resubmittal and going back to the beginning of the queue.
This is a point where you’ll truly benefit from partnering with a professional who understands how the process works. Reason being, there’s providing what’s requested in a packet, and then there’s providing a packet that simplifies the life of the reviewer. The latter works more in your favor.
What’s required of your plan submittal depends on the agency you’re working with and the permit you’re requesting. That said, the following information and documents are nearly always required to obtain a restaurant building permit.
Prepare to have three (3) sets of building/structural plans ready plus two (2) sets of structural calculations.
For more detail about the specific information LADBS requires, check out its PDF on the topic.
To aid in this process, it is always recommended to work with a permit expediter familiar with the location and working with restaurants. Reason being:
So long as your project does not require a change of use permit, LADBS’s downtown office offers an over the counter plan check. This is a faster, interactive way to get plans reviewed by the City of Los Angeles. It’s not available for all projects, but projects like medium-sized tenant improvements can take advantage.
According to the LADBS,
To have a project counter plan checked, you’ll want to be prepared with:
After you obtain a permit and begin construction work, inspections are next. Before your restaurant can open for business, inspections need to be passed and final permits rewarded.
Work is generally inspected and approved in succession and no work may continue beyond the point indicated in each successive inspection without first obtaining the approval of the inspector.
If the work that needs to be inspected will be concealed by another part of the project, you are required to get it inspected before the concealment work is started. Otherwise, you’ll have an unexpected demolition detour.
LADBS plan check reviews and inspections are handled by two different parts of the department, so you won’t be working with the same person.
During the inspection, an inspector is ensuring that codes and standards are being applied, and until he or she signs off on the construction, the project is not approved.
Some common items that require inspection, include (but are limited to):
Before final building inspection, you’ll need to have health department approval.
With the health department, the person who reviewed your plans will also be the one inspecting your work so they’ll have some familiarity with your project.
The health inspector will want to review your equipment list and make sure everything is operating property. They’ll also evaluate surfaces (e.g., countertops) making sure the material can be adequately cleaned.
Be prepared for health inspectors to issue multiple corrections, like the swing of a door or the material finish on your countertops. Do what they say the first time. They can get real salty if they have to repeatedly ask for updates.
Your contractor will often be the one responsible for requesting an inspection, but you’ll need to be prepared.
It’s good to have relevant information and documentation at the ready. Any missing items can delay the inspection and thus hold up the project. Make sure you have:
Also, all the work that’s being inspected should be visible. Anything concealing the inspected part of the project will be asked to be removed. Depending on what’s involved it may require you rescheduling an inspection off-hours at additional cost.
Staying on time and on budget is very important, and to ensure things stay on track it’s good to have an idea of how long things take to happen.
While both the building and health departments are staffed by good people who want to see good things happen in their neighborhoods, they have a lot of other projects to manage. It is your responsibility to make their job as easy as possible and have everything they need ready when they need it.
Generally speaking, expect the process from plan submission to ready-to-issue (RTI) permit to take between two and four months. And that’s if everything goes smoothly.
Following is a high-level look at the different steps and how long each tends to take.
Total Time: 5-15 business days after preliminary plan review request.
Total Time: 15-25 business days to first comments.
Plans are assigned and distributed to staff on Fridays. Submitting before noon on Thursday can reduce plan review time by one week.
Total Time: Expect 5-10 business days
After comments come back, you can submit for a re-review, which usually takes 10 business days. If there are additional comments, you’ll typically have an appointment meeting to go over the comments.
Once the health department approves your plans and stamps the sheets, you need to take the approval letter and the stamped plans back over to the LADBS reviewer. They will usually not stamp plans that are not health reviewed.
Total Time: Expect 30-40 business days.
When first comments are issued after the Building/Structural Review, clearances and clearance comments will also be released. Before a second building/structural review can be completed, you’ll need to take care of all clearances.
Some common clearances include:
Total Time: Expect 5 days.
Once a review is approved, a permit is deemed Ready To Issue (RTI). RTIs process within one business day.
Concurrently, to the above, you’ll need to apply for and attain mechanical, electrical and plumbing permits. You’ll submit separately for each section.
In terms of timing, for each of these sections, expect:
The inescapable truth about restaurant building permit approvals is they take time. When permitting stalls, you may think the reason is because the building codes are getting too stringent or because of government workers?
In our experience, this is rarely the case.
The main reasons for longer wait times when processing building permit applications usually center around development engineering, utilities, planning and land use issues. These are commonly out of most people’s control.
That said, when delays happen (and they will), they can jeopardize your budget and schedule.
For this reason, it is imperative your project is not just another stack of papers sitting on someone’s desk waiting. Avoid this by utilizing your communication skills and personality to shine through the permitting process. In other words, use the three Ps:
Do your research before bombarding the reviewer with a laundry list of questions. Find out what’s available online to answer the simple questions, and then consolidate important queries for the reviewer.
By doing this, you’ll demonstrate that you appreciate the their time, and a familiarity with the topic can help establish a more of an easy-going (and dare I say fun) conversation.
First impressions are lasting impressions. Be confident in the subject. Be friendly. Be appreciative. And where appropriate, be funny. You catch more flies with honey.
Be respectfully persistent. Follow-up to avoid getting pushed-down the priority list. Don’t smother the reviewer, but always make yourself available to answer any questions or provide additional information. This can help streamline the review and give your project a name and a face, or at minimum a voice.
In addition, follow these nine tips to help expedite the restaurant review process.
And, probably the most important tip of all:
As you can see based on the above, attaining restaurant permits is a complicated process that isn’t simplified by the fact that Los Angeles is a large thriving city. Permit Place is a permit expediter. We’ve worked with business to attain hundreds of entitlements and permits to launch restaurants quickly and cost effectively.
If you’re interested in help, we’re here. You can read more about our services on our Los Angeles Permit Expediters page.