How to Start a Restaurant in Tampa, Florida (Successfully)

Who would have thought that Tampa would have a legit food scene? Certainly not me, a native. But times in Tampa, the birthplace to the Cuban sandwich, are a-changin’. And the best part is, that change is brought on largely by people moving here to start businesses. Because unlike New York, Tampa isn’t maxed out yet. You can still be a pioneer here.

That includes starting a restaurant. And while all restaurants have certain opening protocols that are universal, there are plenty of items that are specific to Tampa. So here's how to get started there.

>>>RELATED: How to Start a Restaurant - An Easy Checklist

What are Tampa's best neighborhoods?

If you’ve heard it once you’ve heard it, well, a lot more than that: location is a big deal. Tampa is almost a big “small” town, meaning while undoubtedly a major city, none of its most popular neighborhoods are too far apart. Each has a unique vibe and demographic to consider as you decide where to open your specific restaurant. 

Tampa has added walkable areas to its broadening city landscape, but it's still a city by and for drivers. So consider the parking. If it’s too hard or too expensive, it will cost you customers. Below are a few sought-after neighborhoods located in Tampa’s Hillsborough County that restaurateurs should eye. 

South Tampa: For the established set—and just overall gorgeous scenery—it’s South Tampa. Home to Bayshore Boulevard (at 4.5 miles, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world) as well as swank communities like Davis Island, Hyde Park, SoHo, Palma Ceia, Ballast Point and Culbreath Isles, as well as the infamous Gasparilla. Money lives here. Gorgeous waterfront homes, chic shops, and sprawling restaurants and bars are popping up everywhere. While undoubtedly a fantastic location, renting or owning here is expensive.  

Ybor City: There’s no place in Tampa—or in the world, for that matter—quite like Ybor City. This National Historic Landmark District is the birthplace of cigar factories, and home to many today. It’s also the home to the city’s most diverse group of artists, creators, architects—and, oh yeah, the famous Columbia restaurant, and some serious nightlife.

Downtown / Channelside: For decades Tampa tried to make Downtown cool, but couldn't escape its “just for work” feel until the past few years. Now there’s a bustling Riverwalk where pedestrians and bikers cruise, and the festival-venue Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. Plus, some serious attractions that draw visitors year-round: Amalie Arena (home to the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning), the Florida Aquarium, and the trendy Sparkman Wharf. The working feel has finally made room for some real living and playing vibes. 

Tampa Heights: Tampa’s frontrunner for trendiest neighborhood, and where most new restaurants as well as Florida’s first-ever food hall are planting roots. It's cheaper than South Tampa, attracts millennials by the literal boatload (Tampa water taxi has stops all up the Hillsborough River), and is growing fast. As the Tampa Bay Times wrote, "Few places in the Tampa Bay area are generating as much buzz as Tampa Heights. Just a mile north of downtown Tampa, a community once viewed as slightly seedy, even rough, has become an exemplar of urban cool." Being called "cool" by the local daily means you're probably not really cool anymore, but that's more an indictment of coolness broadly than of Tampa Heights.

>>>RELATED: Things Every Restaurateur Should Know About POS Systems

Zoning in Tampa

With each new location also comes city zoning laws that will affect your restaurant buildout. Ybor City, a historical district, has regulations to protect its architecture and cultural landmarks; however, as it’s also a tourist destination, there are certain areas within (like the popular Seventh Avenue) that are encouraged to enhance touristic activities. In fact, the City of Tampa has even relaxed some of its ordinances due to Covid-19 to provide for more outdoor restaurant seating.

No matter where you decide to open, you will need to become familiar with the general zoning guidelines and fill out an application for your restaurant. Look for a location that was previously a restaurant to ensure you're properly zoned for your purpose. 

Licenses, regulations, and permits in Tampa

Everyone’s favorite category! Kidding, this one's a drag. Tampa, like every other city, requires a slew of licenses and permits that need to be locked in before you can open. Otherwise, you can just bypass the entire thing and wait until you get shut down. (Pro tip: Don't do that.)

Here’s your go-to list:

  • Florida business registration. Set up an LLC or corporation via to receive your EIN or tax number.

  • Food service plan review and establishment license. Get familiar with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants, as it’s essentially the hub of everything you need to obtain your licenses. It’s required for new builds, as well as spaces converted, remodeled or reopened (if closed for at least a year). You will need to submit the following items for “Permanent Food Service (Seating)” restaurants: a complete application; a scale drawing of floor plan with equipment labeled; and a sample menu. Different requirements accompany “Permanent Food Service (Non-Seating)," “Mobile Food Dispensing or Hot Dog Cart” as well as “Catering.”

  • A certified food manager certificate. If your restaurant plans to offer any catering whatsoever, you need to have a "certified food manager"—someone who has passed a written certification test and gotten approved by the Florida Health Department.

  • Florida liquor license. If want to sell liquor, get this license and fork over the accompanying fees. The state offers an option for wine and beer, the process for which may be shorter.

ADA Accessibility

Every business must comply with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). One reason to hire a contractor and an architect to meet building codes during your build out is to nail these federal guidelines. Read up to make sure your restaurant as accessible as possible.  

Equipment requirements

Florida requires restaurants to be outfitted with certain equipment, depending on their type. The state's local reps will have more specifics. Meanwhile, you can count on your list to expect the following: 

  • At least one handwashing sink in the area where food is prepared or served

  • A mop sink or curb sink for disposal of wastewater

  • A restroom for workers and guests (fixtures must be in accordance with the Florida Building Code)

  • Hot and cold running water under pressure at all faucets

There's one fun upside: Once you can prove you're an owner or operator of a food business, you can apply to be a card-carrying member of Tampa’s holy grail of restaurant cookware and food supplies: Restaurant Depot

Health code requirements and inspections

Beyond the food service plan and certificate to ensure safety of your food handling and prep, the Florida Department of Health (FOH) restaurant requirements will always be ongoing. Unannounced inspections can be anywhere from once to several times a year depending on the risk category, so be ready.

Here’s a list of those unpleasant factors—aka major causes of foodborne illness—that should always be avoided (and can cause citations and even shutdowns):

  • Improper hand washing and touching ready to eat foods with bare hands

  • Improper storage of food (inadequate refrigeration temperature or hot holding temperature)

  • Improper washing of hands and fingernails

  • Improperly cooling foods

  • Cross contamination (e.g., from uncooked meat to salad)

  • Improperly cleaned and sanitized eating and cooking utensils, work areas, and equipment

  • Contamination of food, utensils, and equipment from flies, roaches, and other pests

>>>RELATED: How to Write A Restaurant Business Plan

What insurance do you need for a restaurant in Tampa?

The term “cover your bases” is a reminder to make sure every end of your restaurant has the proper insurance.

You’re required to implement some state insurance regardless. Here's the starter kit.

  • Property insurance. Protects the premises in case of fire, theft, vandalism, and other building-related damage.

  • General liability insurance. Protects you and your business against third-party claims such as injuries and property damage—such as if a customer slips and falls or spills hot coffee on themselves. 

  • Workers’ comp. Protects you and your business should an employee get hurt at work. 

  • Liquor liability insurance. Required if you serve alcohol, it protects you if a customer gets hurt, fights someone, breaks things, or crashes his car on the way home from drinking at your establishment.

Fun fact: Tampa is also known as the “lightning capital of the world.” So, yes, clearly there are plenty of thunderstorms that come with that—and, to boot, hurricanes. Find out if you’re in a flood zone and have a chat with your provider about protecting your business against natural disasters (as it is absolutely not included in your basic property insurance).

What business taxes will I have to pay in Tampa?

Residents love it. Businesses love it. White-collar criminals definitely love it. Florida's state income tax rate is a big ol' zero. So that one's on the (state)house.

Florida does, however, collect sales and use tax, intangible tax, and corporate income taxes. 

Speaking of white-collar criminals, do yourself a favor and hire an accountant to manage your books and help you find tax breaks. If you don't know anyone local, ask fellow restaurant owners who they use, as someone who specializes in hospitality in the Tampa area is recommended.

Now let’s get to those far less intimidating Florida taxes your restaurant will incur. 

  • State plus local sales taxes will be at least 8.5%.

  • Florida corporate income tax is a must for businesses earning money in the state, unless you're exempt.

  • Florida property tax is based on market value as of January 1st that year.

  • State income tax is still zero. It's just so fun, it's worth repeating.

Guess what else? If you offer complimentary food as part of a loyalty program—or just provide free or discounted meals to staff—you don’t have to collect state sales tax

And as far as tips go, generally only mandatory tips or tips that go towards the restaurants are required to be taxed. Cash tips can usually avoid it unless they surpass a certain amount

Need more info? Keep this Florida tax handbook, well, handy.

[Photo: Pixabay via Pexels]