Best Practices in Liquor Licensing from Experts at ABC License Company

One major leg up in running a successful San Francisco restaurant is the ability to serve alcohol. We are indeed a city of foodies & drinkies (new word!), whether it’s patrons who want to experience all the world can offer in appellations, libations, and combinations or those who would be lost without their go-to bourbon or craft beer. Whatever the drinker’s preference, one thing is certain, there are a lot of them and a liquor license provides restaurateurs with a better chance of success in the hugely competitive restaurant market that is SF.

The process is 3-6 months with the Department of ABC, and can be a doozy for a multitude of reasons. We’ve been helping the restaurateurs from the great state of California, and especially San Francisco, obtain these licenses for over 23 years. Here are some best practices to consider:

  1. Start the process early. In a best-case scenario, the Dept. of ABC will move your application through the cogs in 3 months, but in this industry, best-case scenario is not something to bet on. As soon as you have a lease secured and your corporation or LLC formed, you can get started. ABC will not issue a license until construction is 80-90% complete, but we can get most required items out of the way early. You’ll have plenty of other things screaming for your attention in the months leading up to your opening.
  2. ALL LIQUOR LICENSE TRANSFERS MUST GO THROUGH ESCROW. Never exchange money outside of an escrow during a business purchase that includes a liquor license. This is for the protection of the buyer. It’s the law and ABC requires it. And as you may know, Type 47 licenses aren’t cheap.
  3. San Francisco has a “concentration” of liquor licenses; so distilled spirits licenses won’t be readily available from the Department any time soon. Instead, you’ll need to buy one from another licensee in San Francisco County. Since the list of licensees with “Surrendered” licenses is publicly available, most brokers often have the same license to sell. So don’t call every broker you can find, you’re likely just driving the price up as the seller gets multiple calls. Find a company you trust (like yours truly) and just deal with that company to find your license.
  4. Negotiate your lease with the liquor license application time in mind. A frequent lease condition allows for deferment or reduction of rent due until your license is Active. Often, without an Active liquor license, a business can’t open. So until you can legally serve, you may be able to save on rent.
  5. Delays are common for many reasons on an application. Often this is due to permitting or construction, but the investigators in the San Francisco District Office are inundated with applications. You will need to follow up with investigators diligently to find out what they’re missing in order to complete their report. (Another reason hiring a firm like ours is key in staying on top of the investigator’s pile and getting a license issued on time).

Every investigator, use district, and district office operates a little differently, so even if you’ve gone through this process before, it may be quite different the next time around. The key ingredients to a successful application are organization, persistence, and proper funding.

If you have any questions about the process or are interested in getting started, call us at 510-788-5881 x101 to speak with Carrie Peters, founder of ABC License Company, advocate on behalf of restaurateurs for all matters ABC related.

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  • John Carston

    This looks like a pretty comprehensive guide to obtaining a liquor license. You made a helpful point when you mentioned to negotiate the license to extend to the end of your lease, that tip can save a lot of money. Thanks for the helpful alcohol license advice.

  • Luke Yancey

    Thank you for your advice in starting the process early. I am moving my restaurant to California next year and will need to see about getting a liquor license. Your post has made me certain it is better to start now than later. Thanks!

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