Local regulators may think it’s nice that you make the best finger sandwiches in town, but their priority is making sure you have the correct licenses, permits, and insurance to operate legally. If you do not observe the proper legalities, you could be slapped with expensive fines or even shut down permanently. In addition, you need to know the laws concerning safe food handling, operating in a commercial kitchen, paying employees, incorporating, and registering your name.
Since caterers deal with potentially hazardous food, the kitchens they work in must be licensed, and caterers must be trained in food safety. Only commercial kitchens can be licensed. Caterers cannot work from their home kitchens and transport food elsewhere.
Commercial kitchens are specifically designed for large-scale food preparation. They have special layouts, which keep raw food separate from cooked foods. They have special ventilation systems, heavy duty equipment meant to be used to cook large amounts of food, special nonslip floor mats, and other special features. Work tables are made of stainless steel for easy cleaning. Commercial kitchens have specific sink requirements and must use only commercial refrigeration units. There are also regulations for lighting fixtures, screens, restrooms, and dumpsters.
Commercial kitchens are regulated by county or by state health departments. Every kitchen is inspected at least once a year. An inspector will check to make sure that dry and refrigerated ingredients are stored and handled properly, refrigerators maintain the right temperature, there are no signs of vermin, insects are kept under control, and the chefs adhere to correct procedures, such as properly cooling in reheating foods and washing their hands.
Research which agencies regulate licensing, inspection, zoning, and building codes. Start by contacting your state’s Department of Health or the Department of Agriculture and Markets. Local municipal zoning and planning boards determine the allowable size of a facility. Local building codes will dictate the volume of business allowed, as well as drainage issues.