Restaurant Compliance: Rules, Regulations, and Laws Explained

Every restaurant owner has a lot on their plate, and you’re no different.. Between juggling payroll, paid time off (PTO), employee onboarding, and timesheets, it’s easy for the details to fall through the cracks, especially when it comes to restaurant compliance.

For example, the food safety and handling regulations, injury prevention, and labor laws that aim to keep your team and customers safe and happy—you know they’re important, but how do you keep up?

In this article, we share a complete guide to restaurant compliance and outline information restaurants must follow to stay operational. We also include a step-by-step guide to performing a restaurant health and safety risk assessment.

Not following restaurant compliance laws can land your business in hot water with local or federal authorities, so it’s best to always follow the right rules and regulations. Let’s dig in!

Remember that this information is not legal advice. When in doubt, always consult an employment attorney with your specific questions about labor law compliance and consequences.

What is restaurant compliance?

Restaurant compliance is adherence to local, state, and federal laws, regulations, and safety standards that govern how restaurant owners and operators run their businesses. It applies to all businesses—regardless of size. 

Compliance covers labor laws, payroll, food safety regulations, and more.

What is a restaurant policy?

A restaurant policy is a set of guidelines that help ensure that a business remains compliant, maintains operational standards, follows health and safety regulations, and adheres to labor laws.

The policies are often outlined in an employee handbook and distributed amongst staff to ensure that everyone knows the rules to follow throughout their employment. 

Think of a restaurant policy as a guidebook for your restaurant. It helps keep everyone on the same page and is a document that your team can refer to when they have questions about how the company operates.

Why are regulations necessary in the restaurant industry?

Laws for restaurants tend to address different elements of safety in your restaurant. There are a few reasons why ‌federal, state, and local government regulations for a restaurant might exist:

    1. Ensure food safety and public health: Regulators rely on the FDA’s (Food and Drug Administration) Food Code recommendations to make sure that restaurants promote safe food handling practices and prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses.
    2. Promote fair labor practices: The Department of Labor’s FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) ensures that restaurant owners follow federal, state, and local standards for minimum wage, overtime hours, and hiring workers under 18.
    3. Create safe work environments: Working with food can be risky, and owners have to follow OSHA safety regulations to create healthy, hazard-free work environments for their staff.
    4. Build inclusive workplaces: The EEOC educates employers and employees about workplace discrimination. It also investigates complaints of discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, disability, age (40 or older), or genetic information.
    5. Protect the environment. Without restaurant regulations, companies would dump their waste wherever they like, harming the planet and local ecosystems. Instead, regulations mean that restaurants have to dispose of waste using proper systems and processes. 

What legal concerns should you be aware of being a manager of a restaurant?

As a manager, it’s your responsibility to follow restaurant laws and regulations accurately. Otherwise, you could land yourself in hot water with the authorities.

Legal requirements for restaurants cover many areas. Familiarize yourself with the following to avoid falling foul of local and federal restaurant laws:

  • Health and safety regulations
  • Employment laws and best practices
  • Maintaining, obtaining, and renewing operational licenses and permits
  • Filing the correct taxes 
  • Environmental regulations
  • Data handling and privacy
  • Advertising regulations
  • Accessibility compliance

Government regulations for a restaurant.

While restaurant regulations can ‌feel overwhelming, they exist to ensure restaurant owners take care of their workers, comply with food safety recommendations, and keep their licenses and certifications up to date—that means staying busy and keeping doors open. 

To avoid restaurant legal issues, keep in mind these restaurant regulations:

1. Labor compliance and restaurant employment laws. 

We know restaurant work comes with unique challenges around tip pooling, compensation, worker safety, and employee management. Indeed, operating a compliant restaurant business means knowing your responsibilities regarding:

Wage laws.

The FLSA requires non-tipped employees to be paid a minimum wage of $7.25, and tipped employees have to be paid a minimum of $2.13. That amount varies by state, though. 

For example, Alaska requires employers to pay workers the minimum state wage of $11.73. In California, you’re required to pay workers $16.00, and “fast food restaurant workers” have a minimum wage of $20.00.

Tip laws.

Employers can claim a maximum ‘tip credit’ of $5.12 from employees who make at least $30 in tips per month. They don’t deduct that amount from a worker’s tips, but ‌they do claim a percentage of tips to cover their obligation to pay minimum wage.

Overtime laws.

The FLSA requires overtime pay for hourly employees who work over 40 hours per week. Employers calculate an employee’s overtime pay rate by multiplying the employee’s hourly wage by 1.5. 

This can also vary by state, like in Nevada and Alaska, where employees can get overtime pay if they work over 8 hours in a day.

Worker safety laws.

OSHA requirements for restaurants are similar to those for other potentially hazardous workplaces. For example, OSHA requires that employers display a clearly visible poster educating employees on their rights under the OSHA Act, including the right to report a violation without fear of retaliation. 

Employers are also obligated to report serious injuries to OSHA within 8 hours of occurrence, and they have to keep reports of any workplace accidents and injuries updated and accurate. 

In the case of a workplace injury, restaurant employees may also be legally entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits.

Anti-discrimination laws.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it’s illegal for employers to make any kind of workplace decision based on race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. This includes employer decisions about recruiting, hiring, pay, promotions, references, and training restaurant staff.

2. Food safety and food handling regulations.

Restaurant compliance regulations are based on the FDA’s Food Code recommendations, which local, state, tribal, and federal regulators use to guide their own food safety rules to stay consistent with national food regulations.

Additionally, health and safety inspectors make restaurant inspection records available to the public. You certainly don’t want your local customers reading about your violations, so you can’t cut corners on food safety and handling.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of regulations for reference:

  1. Make sure signs are displayed where employees can see them, such as your  “All employees must wash hands” sign in the bathroom.
  2. Be careful of cross-contamination. For example, it’s against health codes to use the same utensils to cut raw chicken and vegetables without sanitizing them in between.
  3. Monitor your time and temperature control issues. Never leave foods out that should be refrigerated or frozen. 
  4. Properly store refrigerated food. Raw and cooked vegetables should be on top in your refrigerator, with cooked meats underneath, then raw meats further down, and poultry at the very bottom.
  5. Train your employees about hygiene. Staff should wear hairnets if necessary, keep their uniforms clean, and learn best practices for when and how to wash their hands.

3. Staff conduct.

Restaurants can be bustling, high-pressure environments that exacerbate inappropriate behavior, but they don’t have to be. Make sure you train, educate, and reinforce your employee conduct policies and make it clear you have a zero-tolerance policy for:


Any kind of discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

It can include conduct such as “offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name-calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance” or any behavior that creates an intimidating or hostile environment.

Sexual harassment.

According to the Department of Labor, sexual harassment can include “sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. 

Allowing sexual harassment to fester in a restaurant environment can create a hostile, offensive work environment and seriously damage employee morale and engagement.

Alcohol sales.

Alcohol sales help restaurants bring in extra revenue. But restaurant alcohol regulations vary a great deal according to your state and county

For example, Kansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee are all technically “dry states” where every county has to legalize liquor licenses and the sale of alcohol, and many dry counties still exist in Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Dakota, and Texas.  

4. Worker injury prevention policies.

Restaurant compliance also includes attention to safety measures to prevent workplace accidents like employee falls, cuts, and burns. To avoid worker injuries and OSHA violations, your worker injury prevention measures should cover:

  • Floors and walking surfaces
  • Ladder safety
  • Storage rooms and walk-in coolers and freezers
  • Material handling
  • Equipment and appliance safety
  • Chemical safety
  • Electrical equipment
  • Fire safety

Your injury prevention policies should also include detailed checklists for regular staff reference.

5. Cleaning policy.

While a cleaning policy sounds obvious, restaurateurs and staff don’t always know the specific cleaning violations that food safety inspectors look out for and see all the time. 

Keep a food safety and cleaning checklist somewhere your restaurant staff can review, and make sure it’s consistent with your own restaurant’s policies. 

It should include detailed cleaning and handling procedures for:

  • Personal hygiene
  • Proper food preparation
  • Hot holding
  • Cold holding
  • Refrigerator, freezer, and milk cooler
  • Food storage and dry storage
  • Cleaning and sanitizing
  • Utensils and equipment
  • Large equipment
  • Garbage storage and disposal 
  • Pest control

Check out our handy restaurant cleaning checklist, complete with free template!

Restaurant rules and regulations for employees.

Whether you’re a floor manager, owner, operations manager, server, or busser—it’s important that everyone understands the legal implications of not following restaurant compliance—for example, trouble with local or federal law.

Here are a few ideas of restaurant rules for employees to follow:

Maintain appearance and hygiene practices.

Employees should be aware of the basic expectations regarding appearance and hygiene. For example, wearing clean work clothes, the use of hair or beard nets, regular handwashing, and what to do if they feel unwell at work or need to call in sick.

Ensure workplace safety training.

Make sure employees know how to use kitchen equipment safely, the best way to perform actions such as lifting boxes or storage, and what to do in case of an emergency, such as a fire, earthquake, or a customer falling seriously ill. 

Adhere to professional standards.

Employees should adhere to professional standards to remain compliant. For example, they should always behave politely, respectfully, and professionally toward customers and other employees.

Keep food handler licenses up to date. 

Depending on your state and county, restaurant employees may be required to have food handler licenses or even food manager certifications, which are often reserved for supervisors. Especially important for restaurant kitchen rules, make sure workers know how long their licenses are valid for. 

For example, in California, any employee who prepares, stores, or serves food must pass a food handler safety training course, complete an exam, and get a California Food Handler (CFH) card that’s valid for three years. 

Note that Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties have their own food handler card programs, though, so CFH cards aren’t valid in those areas.

Restaurant rules and regulations for customers.

Think beyond rules and regulations for restaurant staff, like managers, servers, and the kitchen staff. Customers also have a code of conduct to follow. This helps ensure that all patrons have an enjoyable dining experience. 

For example:

  • Treat employees with respect and refrain from using threatening, rude, or vulgar language.
  • Adhere to any reservations practices including following cancellation policies and informing the restaurant if they’re running late.
  • Inform the server, manager, or kitchen staff of any allergies or dietary requirements.
  • Follow any relevant dress codes, for example, formal or business casual.
  • Respect smoking policies. 
  • No outside food or drink unless approved (e.g., a birthday cake).

How to perform restaurant health and safety risk assessment.

Restaurant compliance requirements are easier to meet if you follow these steps to mitigate any potential restaurant hazards that could impact your levels of compliance:

    • Conduct a thorough walkthrough inspection: Look for hazards, such as slippery floors, food contamination, exposed wires or electrical equipment, chemicals, poor ventilation, or out of date training certificates.
    • Identify potential risks: Consider how employees or customers could be impacted by any potential risks.
    • Evaluate: What could impact your ability to remain compliant? What is the likelihood and severity of each hazard?
    • Take steps to mitigate: Document the hazard, risk involved, and then detail steps to reduce or mitigate any potential damage to compliance and restaurant rules and regulations.

6 tips to avoid restaurant compliance risks.

Now that we’ve talked about compliance, what can restaurant owners do about it? Let’s look at some ways you can educate yourself and your employees about compliance.

1. Talk to a lawyer.

Talking to a lawyer who specializes in business law can help you prevent non-compliance issues before they happen. Lawyers have specialties, though, and even business lawyers sometimes specialize even further in specific areas. 

From cafe health and safety advice to restaurant worker regulations, if compliance is your number one concern, it’s a good idea to research law firms and lawyers who specialize in:

  • Small business law
  • Employment law
  • Fair trade practices
  • Business litigation
  • Risk and compliance law

1. Have clear policies in place.

Your restaurant employees should know from day one that you have clear policies regarding wages, hours, food safety, worker safety, and anti-discrimination and that they can find any information they need about company policy in their employee handbook, including restaurant safety rules. 

Don’t forget to include a disclaimer that your handbook is not an employment contract. An employee handbook is not legally binding in the same way that a contract is, and it can be updated at any time.

If you need help with your employee handbook, Homebase HR Pro has your back. When you sign up, you’ll get live access to expert advisors who can review your current policies and help write new ones. 

2. Hire the right people. 

Ideal restaurant staff don’t just have front-of-house or back-of-house experience. They know how to deal with the specific challenges that come along with working in a restaurant and understand they’re the faces customers associate most strongly with the business. 

Hiring the right restaurant employees means getting detailed with your job descriptions, applicant screening questions, and interview questions so you find competent and positive employees who understand the importance of compliance.

3. Proper onboarding and training. 

You can start onboarding before a new hire’s first day by having them read and e-sign any necessary new hire paperwork and packets as soon as you offer them the job — which, by the way, you can do when onboarding with Homebase’s mobile app

That way, you can spend time on your employee’s first day educating them on important matters like restaurant compliance.

Training employees on food and work safety is a lengthy process, but you can give them an overview of how everything works during their first week and make it clear they’re learning experience is a priority. 

4. Create a great work culture.

A positive work culture can have a powerful impact on employee effectiveness, and creating a safe environment free of discrimination and harassment should always be a priority. You want your employees to feel safe and respected in their workplace and not afraid to come to work. 

When you take the time to educate your workers on the restaurant compliance issues that matter, you’re telling them their growth and development matter because you’re giving them knowledge they can use in a future career in the restaurant industry.

5. Conduct regular deep cleaning.

Restaurant cleaning is a big part of standard day-to-day operations. To stay on top of all your tasks, create a master cleaning schedule that lays out exactly how often certain cleaning  should be done. 

For example, clean your floors daily, but you can clean your exhaust hoods once a week or once a month. 

Other compliance areas for weekly or monthly deep cleaning could include:

  • Grease traps and exhaust fans
  • Floor mats and floors
  • Walls and ceilings
  • Appliances and kitchen equipment, like soda fountain nozzles, meat slicers, or ice machines
  • Filters
  • Sinks and countertops
  • Outdoor garbage
  • Under and behind kitchen equipment
  • Fans and lighting

6. Check state and local laws.

State and local laws can change from year to year, and you might feel like you can’t keep up with all the updates and regulatory agencies that expect you to have the latest information.

We created our state labor law hub for small business owners so you don’t have to do deep Google research on your own.

Keep your restaurant compliant with Homebase.

You don’t have to keep all the information we covered in this article saved on an Excel spreadsheet, and you definitely don’t have to work on compliance issues alone. 

Homebase was built to help small business owners manage HR and compliance, hiring and onboarding, timesheets, payroll, and team communication all in one place without having to outsource to professionals or juggle a bunch of complicated tools.

Best of all, Homebase HR lets you automate your restaurant compliance process, giving you more time to focus on what really matters—growing your business.

Restaurant Compliance FAQ

Do restaurants have to be PCI compliant?

PCI Compliance (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards Compliance) is a set of rules and regulations that apply to every business that accepts credit or debit cards. Restaurants are no exception. So if your diner, cafe, bar, or restaurant runs card transactions, it’s very likely you need to be PCI compliant.

Are restaurants regulated by the FDA?

No, restaurants aren’t regulated by the FDA. However, it plays an important role in food safety through the Food Code, which is a set of enforced guidelines for food safety practices in retail and food service establishments, including restaurants.

What are some common violations of restaurant standards?

Here are some common restaurant health code violations that unannounced health and safety inspectors often cite:

  1. Missing/poorly displayed signs and posters, such as signs that enforce employee handwashing.
  2. Poor personal hygiene, such as failing to wash hands.
  3. Cross-contamination, like using the same utensils to cut raw chicken and vegetables without sanitizing them.
  4. Time and temperature control issues, such as leaving out foods that should be frozen or refrigerated.
  5. Improper food temperature, such as failing to monitor the temperature of fridges and/or freezers.
  6. Lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) or PPE worn improperly.
  7. Improper handling or storage of service ware, such as failing to store cups upside down to avoid bacterial contamination.
  8. Improper use of cleaning supplies, such as using the wrong cleaning solutions to disinfect surfaces.
  9. Storing expired foods.

Inadequate pest control.

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