how to start a food business in Oakland : City and county permits

This is our second post in the series on how to start a food business in Oakland. This post is written by Matt Johansen, co-founder of Forage Kitchen. Our first is written by co-founder Iso Rabins, and covers the existential crisis of what to decide to focus your business on. Check it out here.


Starting a new business can be hard. And starting a new food business can be downright overwhelming.  Working with food comes with a unique set of challenges due to the multitude of permits that can be required by city, county, state or even federal entities. These administrative requirements can stop anyone in their tracks and kill their dream.

I’ve started a number of businesses in my life, ranging from educational non-profits to restaurants. While each one had its own complexities, the food-related businesses by far outweighed the others in terms of the sheer number of rules, regulations, and just plain unknowns that I initially found very frustrating to navigate.

Below is a step-by-step process, with corresponding resource links, that I hope will make it a little easier to chart your course when you venture into your dream of ownership. The bureaucrats don’t make it easy to navigate the labyrinth of permits and licenses (which need to be obtained in a specific order), but following this guide will put you on the right path! At Forage Kitchen, we pride ourselves on being a resource for our chefs, so if you have any questions, definitely feel free to reach out.



Step 1: Business Name & EIN Number

Fictitious Business Name: What’s the name of your business? If you plan on giving your business a name different from your own, you’ll need a fictitious business name statement. If you’re going to use your own name, you are exempt from this step.

1)    Below is a link to an overview about how to file a fictions business name in Alameda County. Link:

2)    It’s recommended that you search the fictitious name directory to see if anyone else has the name you have in mind.


3)    Once you’ve chosen your business name, here is the form you’ll need to fill out and send in, along with a check.


Employer Identification Number (EIN): Below is a link to the IRS website where you can obtain an EIN number. You will need this if you are applying for a business license in Oakland.



Step 2: California Seller’s Permit

If you are engaged in business in California and wish to sell products, then you are subject to sales tax and you’ll need to obtain a seller’s permit. Please find the link below that will guide you through the process. This is essential if you are applying for a business license in Oakland.



Step 3: Insurance

Insurance is always a challenging thing to figure out. The Food Liability Insurance Company (FLIP) is an inexpensive and straightforward general liability insurance company for new food businesses. Below is a link that will guide you through the signup process.



Step 4: Oakland Business License

Every business operating out of Oakland must have a business license. To obtain a business license, you will need to do two things. First, obtain a Zoning Clearance Number. Second, file an Oakland business license application. Please note that you will need to have a state seller’s number and an EIN number before taking this step.

Zoning Clearance Number: This is required for all Oakland-based businesses and notifies the City of the type of business you are operating. Simply fill out this form and return it to: 250 Frank Ogawa Plaza, 2nd Floor, Oakland.


Oakland Business License: Once you receive your Zoning Clearance Number, head downstairs to the Business License Office and file your New Business application. The link below will give you a rundown of how it works and a link to the application.



Step 5: California Food Handler Certificate

If you work with food and sell to the general public in California, you are required to have a California Food Handler Certificate. There are two different types of certificate: one for managers and one for employees. In Oakland, every business needs at least one person with a manager certificate.  I won’t lie to you, this one’s a hassle. Unlike the employee certificate, this requires taking an all-day class. Plus, they’re not often available, so don’t delay in signing up— you might have to wait as long as a few months before you get a spot.

You will need this when you apply for an Alameda County Health Permit. Look for information about both certificates and a link to classes that are required in order to obtain your certificate.

Food Safety Certification for Managers: California State Law requires that at least one person operating a food business be in possession of a Food Safety Manager Certificate (Cal. Retail Food Code, §113947.1) and has trained his or her employees in the correct food safety practices. This person should be on the premises of a food business during operation, or should designate a different person in charge of food safety when absent. The Food Safety Manager Certificate is good for five (5) years, and is offered in many different languages. Please find a link to classes below.


California Food Handler Certificate (Food Handler Card-Employee): All employees that handle food must have a food handler card, except for the Person in Charge (PIC) (see above). Training to receive a food handler card is available online, and is good for three (3) years. Once completed, the employee should print his or her certification card. Every food-handling employee needs to have a Food Handler Card, but only one person needs to have his or her Food Safety Manager Certificate (see above).



Step 6: Alameda County Health Permit

Obtaining a county permit can be complex and depends on the type of business you’re operating and the way in which you sell your product to the public (retail, wholesale, farmers markets, etc.).  In some cases, you will fall under state programs, sometimes under county programs, and sometimes under a combination of both. I would love to tell you exactly what you’ll need here, but since there are so many different permits for different types of businesses, I’ve provided the best (and most clear) info from the Health Department, with links below:

This is the home page for mobile food permits and is a great place to start. Please note that you will need the following items when applying for a health permit: a Food Handler Management Certificate and a City of Oakland business license. You may be required to obtain specific state licenses depending on your product.


Catering Registration: This registration is for caterers hired for private events only. Catering, in this context, means that an order is placed prior to the event, and the caterer prepares the food and delivers it to the venue. The order transaction needs to be done prior to the event.


Mobile Food Facilities Application: If you are catering at public events, or selling to the general public, then you need to obtain and file a Mobile Food Facilities application. Please note that you may fall into a state program that is more applicable to your needs. This is a gray area within the state and the county depending on the type of food you are selling and how you are selling it. Please see state permits below. Below is a link to the county application.


Hope that helps you in your journey to becoming a legit business. If you ever have any questions or are looking for kitchen space, feel free to reach out to me directly at

Matt Johansen
Partner: Forage Kitchen

Next up: A step by step on navigating the labyrinth of state licenses.