Why we still refer to Florida as a “state” is unclear. Everyone knows this Sunshine location is its own country, its own planet. With 21.5 million residents, Florida is the fourth-most populous state … and on top of that draws well above 100 million visitors a year. The food and beverage scene has to be tip-top to keep up. There are more than 41,000 restaurants and bars, employing approximately 12 percent of the workforce and generating an estimated $50 billion in sales.
However it may be described, Florida is full of hungry people ready for the next best thing. Sure, there are snowbirds, seasonal tourists, and the elusive Florida Man. But with its proximity to the Caribbean and South America, its bustling entertainment industry, and its unhinged mentality, Florida is also home to one of the wildest, creative, and tastiest culinary swamps in the country. It’s also known as a relatively business-friendly environment, not too unlike Texas, just with much better beaches.
Its sheer size and diversity can make the journey of opening a restaurant in Florida a daunting one. The opportunities, however, are just as bright as a theme park ride, a Miami night, or a Boca Raton beach. The biggest trick is staying on task and not getting too distracted by all Florida has to offer.
Opening a restaurant anywhere is an investment. Those slicers and dicers and mixers and mashers are going to run up a pretty price tag. Expect to spend a minimum of $10,000 for food-related equipment and hardware.
In general, the median cost of opening a restaurant in Florida, or anywhere, is about $375,000. Popularity often comes with a price. When considering the costs associated with opening your soon-to-be popular restaurant in Florida, don’t forget that a lot of other people are looking to do the same. Location will play a huge part in how much you’ll need to invest. Anywhere near a beach, you’re looking at higher prices. But go inland even a few minutes, you’ll find cheap real estate — possibly in one of the state’s nearly 300 malls.
Just as important as your menu is where you’re setting up your perfect restaurant. It’s not just about location, but how that location is zoned. As with most states, Florida zones its land at the local city and county level, so you need to have a solid idea of where you want to be located before you even start the process. Work with legal experts in your area to ensure you’re following all the proper codes.
The necessary figures and fine print are one thing, but you’ll also be considering the larger picture. Florida is a state of multiple personalities and various locations may be better suited for certain types of cuisine. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) has seven regional districts it uses in organizing its licensing fees.
District 1 — Miami, which needs no introduction. The jewel of Florida is home to some of the best Latin American and Cuban food in the country and a sultry nightlife scene. It’s also one of the most expensive cities in the Sunshine state.
District 2 — Want to be near Miami but not so close as to get blinded by it? The Margate district, which includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, is a solid spot for those looking to give their restaurant a workout in a summer league. An excellent area to set up in a well-trafficked strip mall.
District 3 — While South Florida boasts more glamour, Greater Tampa, including St. Petersburg, is the place for hungry upstarts. With more than friendly costs, the area is one of the best for startup businesses. While the state is surrounded by water on three sides, no area perhaps has greater and more varied seafood cuisine than here.
District 4 — Orlando may be easily known as the week-long mecca for guided tourist traps munching at national chains, but it's more than just Disney mascots and movie rides. Perhaps that’s why its growing, local food scene pleasantly surprises restaurateurs and eaters alike. The sheer amount of competition there, however, can be fierce. While it has been recently named the second-best “foodie” city, it also has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country.
District 5 — The state’s most populous city, Jacksonville is either the wild west or the Deep South. Either way, it’s long been overlooked as a place to set up shop. These days, you won’t find trouble in River City, just a bunch of upstarts creating a fascinating blend of Southern cuisine and Florida fare in a city with lower costs of living and fewer of the establishment trappings than other parts of the state. Whether you’re catering to the golf tourists, fans of the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival, or the infamous Georgia-Florida game, Jacksonville is a place to let your restaurant freak flag fly.
District 6 & 7 — The Panama City Beach district includes 17 counties. The vacation destination is a fine spot for any restaurateur looking to establish a seasonal concept that’ll blow people out of the water. Like Jacksonville or Tallahassee, its proximity to Southern and Gulf culture makes it fit for a restaurant looking to some creative mix-and-matching.
Nearly 500 miles south, Fort Myers and the Cape Coral area composes District 7. Another beautiful beach destination and a Southwestern Florida gateway, consider Fort Myers if low-key ocean-view food and a cheaper breeze than West Palm Beach is what you’re aiming for.
Florida knows a thing or ten about hospitality and it doesn’t play around with that fun. If you’re planning on opening a restaurant in Florida, you’ll need some specific licenses and permits. But before you even get started with that, you have to present the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) with a plan review.
The plan review includes minimum construction standards and basic elements like water disposal and material elements to be used in food prep areas.
The DBPR, which oversees food permits and licenses via its Division of Hotels and Restaurants (DHR), receives over 5,000 plan reviews a year and evaluates them on a first-come-first-serve basis. The last thing you want is to have your plan kicked back for being undercooked. To help prevent that, DBPR has a 32-page step-by-step guide to ensure you can get to cooking as soon as possible.
In addition to the plan review, anyone hoping to open a restaurant in Florida will need to apply for a restaurant license, a separate liquor license (if the restaurant will be boozing), as well as standard business paperwork such as a sales tax registration and a final, pre-opening safety inspection.
Pro tip: The DHR recommends submitting your application for the actual restaurant license, called a seating license, at the same time as the plan review. How much your license will cost depends on a number of factors, including the county location of the restaurant and its size. Thankfully, the DHR has a handy calculator to help you estimate that price as well as a breakdown of all the fees.
If you’re setting up your Florida restaurant correctly, then you’re already working on submitting a plan review to DBPR, which covers in detail the basics of what foundational equipment you’ll need. But apart from the basics like stoves and sinks and pots and pans (oh my!), never overlook one of the most important factors in deciding to open a restaurant: location.
Despite, or perhaps because, Florida is known as the Sunshine State, there’s a good chance you are going to consider (or your customers may demand) some of that sunshine. This means outdoor seating. And as sunny as Florida may be, it isn’t always a perfect 85 degrees — wintertime can freeze orange groves solid, and hurricane season brings six months of almost daily rain in some parts of the state. Some of the most important equipment purchases you make when opening a restaurant in Florida will be some sort of outdoor cover or umbrellas, and plenty of patio heaters.
The cost of individual patio heaters ranges from $150 for cheaper models to $1,500 or more for a luxury look. As with restaurant floor design, it’s important to keep in mind how many tables, chairs, in order to calculate the available space for your solar sentries. Not only that, but you’ll need to become a minor expert in heating physics. But it’s easy! Heaters are measured in BTUs (British Thermal Units).The average patio heater puts out about 30,000 more BTUs. One patio heater in a covered area will warm about 1,500 to 2,000 square feet on full blast and about 300 square in an uncovered area. No matter how you arrange the heaters, it’s better to have more and keep the heat lower. And, of course, safety first.
One other piece of equipment worth putting a bug in your ear about: Air curtains. Warm days and breezy nights means customers and staff are going to be coming in and out of your restaurant. What you don’t want coming in and out of your restaurant is the rest of Florida’s ecosystem. Industrial air curtains provide a perfect way to keep a restaurant sanitary and clean while also allowing for the option of opening up doors, windows, and walls should customers want an outdoor experience indoors. In addition to keeping out bugs, air curtains are great for keeping the energy budget under control by easily controlling the retention of heating and cooling. The less wear and tear on your restaurant’s HVAC system, the better.
With its wide array of locales and people, Florida might do a lot of different things a lot of different ways. But when it comes to restaurant accessibility, one thing is consistent: compliance with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Whether you’re thinking of starting a restaurant in Pensacola or Key West, following the guidelines set by the ADA is paramount.
As the Florida Department of Health notes on its website, though, the ADA isn’t your only available source when it comes to providing quality access to every customer who comes through your restaurant. It’s important, too, to recognize what obstacles some of your customers may face after you’ve chosen your prime location. Is there adequate solid ground for mobile transport at your beachfront tiki bar? Will your extremely hungry but visually impaired customers be able to choose and place their order in your converted (and loud) warehouse space? Many of your customers will be older, from faraway countries, or towing families. So remember that Florida rewards those who create and provide all-inclusive experiences.
Beach life might be described as “no shirt, no shoes, no problem.” That said, even if grilling naked weren’t a terrible idea, your working Florida restaurant will have some basic standards.
Unlike inspections in other states, which are often done on the local county or city level, Florida uses a state-wide approach. That mouthful of a state section, the Division of Hotels and Restaurants (DHR) for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) is responsible for inspections of restaurants all over the state.
Florida takes a “risk-based” approach to its inspections. Think of these risk-based inspections as part of a sliding scale. Leaving a box of napkins on the ground isn’t as risky or the intense focus of inspection violations as, say, leaving out that bag of shrimp to warm all night.
As the DHR website notes, restaurants are “required to have between 1-4 unannounced inspections each year. The number of inspections is based on risk factors and includes the type of food utilized, food preparation methods, and inspection and compliance history.” Basically, the more adventurous you plan to be with your menu and prepared items, the more you are going to want to ensure you have no food handling problems.
With any restaurant, expect insurance for all the usual suspects and consult experts in the area before investing. There’s the general liability insurance, the property insurance, and the always important liquor liability insurance for when a Florida Man takes beach life a bit too far. In addition, don’t forget to look into Florida-specific insurance that covers wind and water-related disasters. The only hurricane you want in your restaurant is one that comes in a curvy, 32-ounce glass.
When it comes to taxes, Florida ranks among the top five for small businesses. That said, you’re obviously still going to have some taxes as a restaurateur. Florida’s state sales tax is 6 percent. Statewide, Florida just implemented a “rounding algorithm” for sales tax, which turns loose change of the third decimal point into nice round numbers. Be sure to check out the Florida Department of Revenue for more details on that.
State sales tax won’t be your only concern. Many Florida counties use what is called a “discretionary sales surtax” aka a “a local option county sales tax” for taxable items and service that come into a county. The details of the tax setup can be confusing to an amateur, despite it being laid out by Florida’s DoR. So be sure to consult with a tax expert before beginning to bring in items willy-nilly.