From restaurants that served the founding fathers to new eateries serving cutting-edge modern cuisine, the food scene in Pennsylvania is as broad and exciting as anywhere in the country. If you're looking to open a business that serves alcohol, you're going to need a license issued by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB).
With wet and dry municipalities, mountains of documents to produce, and a quota system that can make getting the license you need costly, navigating the PLCB system to get a liquor license can be a little intimidating. We’re here to walk you through the process and teach you everything you need to know about getting a liquor license in Pennsylvania.
- Do you need a liquor license to sell alcohol in Pennsylvania?
- Types of liquor licenses in Pennsylvania
- How long does it take to get a liquor license?
- How much does a liquor license cost in Pennsylvania?
- Pennsylvania liquor license requirements
- How to get a liquor license in Pennsylvania
- Pennsylvania liquor license renewal requirements
- Can a liquor license be transferred in Pennsylvania?
- What are employee requirements to serve alcohol in Pennsylvania?
- Pennsylvania’s liquor liability and dram shop laws
- What kind of insurance do you need to get a liquor license in Pennsylvania?
Do you need a liquor license to sell alcohol in Pennsylvania?
Business owners interested in serving alcohol in Pennsylvania must have a license issued by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB).
While the PLCB regulates the sale of alcohol, Pennsylvania law allows municipalities (individual towns or cities but not counties) to enact their own liquor laws, including banning the sale of certain types of alcohol.
Municipalities that have enacted these bans are known as "dry" municipalities; those that allow the sale of all alcohol are "wet" municipalities. As of August 2022, about 675 of Pennsylvania’s 2,560 municipalities are at least partly “dry,” meaning you cannot sell alcohol in those locations, license or not.
Types of liquor licenses in Pennsylvania
Depending on the type of business you want to open and the kinds of alcohol you want to sell, there are several types of liquor licenses available in Pennsylvania.
For those in the food service industry looking to serve alcohol, there are two licenses you need to know about:
- Eating Place (E) License: Allows for the sale of beer only
- Restaurant (R) License: Allows for the sale of beer, wine, and spirits
Both licenses allow holders to sell up to 192 ounces (commonly two six-packs) of beer to-go, per transaction.
Restaurant (R) licensees can also obtain a wine expanded permit for an additional fee to sell up to three liters of wine to-go per transaction. While allowed during the pandemic, selling open spirits or mixed beverages to-go is no longer legal in Pennsylvania.
Except in Philadelphia, an E license can be converted to an R license for a one-time fee of $30,000, so long as your establishment meets the requirements needed for an R license and your closest neighbors don’t object.
Both E and R licenses are under quota in Pennsylvania, meaning the number of licenses is limited based on county and municipality population. Currently, the quota for both E and R licenses is set at 1 for every 3,000 people.
How long does it take to get a liquor license?
Due to the quota system, you will unlikely be able to purchase a new liquor license in Pennsylvania. Instead you’ll have to either find someone willing to sell their license or wait for the license you want to be offered at a Restaurant License Auction.
If everything goes smoothly, once you acquire a license and apply for a transfer, the process should take eight to twelve weeks. However, hiccups occur and the PLCB warns, “Do not plan a grand opening, gala affairs, or events of any type until you receive notice of the PLCB’s final action — that is, whether the online request is approved.”
How much does a liquor license cost in Pennsylvania?
Getting your license approved by the PLCB only costs $125 to $700, depending on the type of license and population of your municipality. However, due to the quota system, you'll probably have to purchase the license before going through the approval process.
When a liquor license expires in Pennsylvania, the PLCB reclaims the license and auctions it off in a Restaurant License Auction which takes place 2 or 3 times a year. The minimum bid for a license is set at $25,000. The price can go up considerably depending on where the license is valid and the license type. In the most recent auction, the lowest winning bid for a license was $25,111, and the highest winning bid was $250,112.
Private, person-to-person license sales are not regulated or documented by the PLCB, but previous auction prices for liquor licenses are a good indication of the going rate for a license in your area.
Pennsylvania liquor license requirements
To be eligible for a liquor license in Pennsylvania, you must provide the following documentation:
- Identification (driver’s license, passport, etc.).
- Residence information for the previous five years. (If applicable, this must include the name of the county police department/law enforcement agency responsible for that jurisdiction so the local authority can complete an out-of-state criminal record check.)
- Employment information for the previous five years, including dates employed and the name and address of the employer(s).
In addition, you must provide the following for the premises to be licensed:
- Correct physical and mailing address information.
- Current property owner/lessor name, address, and contact information, including the phone number of the premises to be licensed.
- Documentation to verify the corporate/business structure of the property landlord.
- Current health license
- Lease between the current property owner and applicant/applicant entity, signed and dated (if applicable).
- Lease assignment (if applicable).
You also must provide the following financial information:
- Evidence to support that the entire purchase price (excluding real estate) is properly held in escrow by a financial institution or attorney in the form of cash or legal obligation, payable to the seller from the applicant listed on the application for all items to be ultimately owned by the applicant only.
- A copy of a manager’s contract or agreement (if applicable).
- All original sources of funds for the purchase of the license, licensed business, fixtures, equipment, and property must be provided and verified. Additionally, if real estate was purchased by the applicant/applicant principal/entity within the previous year, they should provide evidence of the purchase and information about the source of funding for the purchase.
- An Individual Financial Disclosure Affidavit (PLCB-1842) for each individual applicant, corporation, limited liability company (LLC), partnership, or club must be prepared. You may hold the completion of this affidavit until the time of the interview so the licensing analyst can assist.
- Copies of bank statement(s), checking accounts, etc., for the last six months.
- Documents regarding the source of funds used in the transaction (judgment notes, loan commitments, settlement sheets, original source of any monies held in savings accounts, etc.).
This may seem like a lot — and it is. To expedite the application process, it's best to gather all the documentation you need before applying.
Additionally, your establishment must meet specific requirements depending on the type of license you’re after:
For a Restaurant (R) license, your premise must be at least 400 square feet; for an Eating Place (E) license, it must be a minimum of 300 square feet. In addition, both must meet the following requirements:
- Must have seating and food for at least 30 patrons.
- 30 or more seats must be readily available for the public and should not be concealed or behind locked doors or walls (bar stools are considered an acceptable form of seating).
- Seating may not be stacked.
- Must have dishes and silverware to accommodate at least 30 patrons.
- Health License Requirements: Must have a current and valid health license issued by your governing municipal authority.
How to get a liquor license in Pennsylvania
The first step in getting a liquor license in Pennsylvania is finding the license you need. Due to the quota system, you'll need to find the correct license and ensure it's valid in the county and municipality you want to do business.
Once you find the license, either through a private sale or the Restaurant License Auction, you'll need to contact the PLCB and start an account on their online PLCB+ system. You can begin the application process of filling out forms and submitting the requested documents to the PLCB.
There are many requirements to meet and documentation to provide during the process. You can certainly navigate the system yourself, but many lawyers specialize in liquor license applications if you find yourself confused or overwhelmed. They can assist and expedite the process for a fee.
Pennsylvania liquor license renewal requirements
Liquor licenses in Pennsylvania are renewed every two years and validated in the off years. While fees are only due on renewal years, both renewals and validations essentially amount to a check-up on your business.
During this check-up, the PLCB contacts your local municipality to see if you've received any citations and ensures your taxes have been paid.
Renewal deadlines and years vary depending on where your business is located. If a license is not renewed, it is considered expired and placed up for auction.
Can a liquor license be transferred in Pennsylvania?
Yes, there are three types of transfers the PLCB allows:
- Person-to-person: This is for when ownership of a business changes hands, but the location stays the same.
- Place-to-place: This is for when you move the location of your business, but the ownership remains the same.
- Double transfer: For when both the ownership and place of business are going to be different.
The license transfer fee is $550 for place-to-place, $650 for person-to-person, and $700 for a change of person and place.
All of these transfers are subject to license quotas, so licenses cannot be transferred between counties as a general rule.
What are employee requirements to serve alcohol in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania has established the Responsible Alcohol Management Program (RAMP) to ensure every licensee and their employees understand and employ responsible alcohol management practices.
RAMP’s two core training programs are Owner/Management training and Server/Seller Training.
New managers must complete RAMP training within 180 days of approval of the appointment by the PLCB, and servers/sellers must be RAMP trained within six months of being hired. RAMP certification is valid for two years.
Pennsylvania’s liquor liability and dram shop laws
Pennsylvania is a dram shop liability state. That means that should one of your patrons cause injury or death because they became intoxicated in your establishment, your business could be held responsible.
For example, say a group comes to your restaurant to celebrate a friend’s engagement. They order multiple rounds of drinks and have a good time. Unfortunately, they get into a car accident driving home that injures the other driver. Your business can be sued if the engagement party driver was over the legal limit. Your business could be held responsible for this accident.
What kind of insurance do you need to get a liquor license in Pennsylvania?
Depending on the type of business you own, you may be required to have liquor liability and general liability insurance coverage.
Here are some of the business insurance options that Pennsylvania owners should consider:
Liquor Liability insurance
With dram shop laws in place, liquor liability insurance can help cover medical expenses, property damage, and even court fees should you be held responsible for a customer's behavior while intoxicated.
General Liability insurance
Working with the public is unpredictable, general liability insurance helps keep you covered from the most common incidents that occur, including slip and falls to people who aren’t your employees and accidental property damage.
Workers’ Comp insurance
Pennsylvania state law requires that all employees be covered by workers’ comp insurance, regardless of if they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal workers. If an employee is injured or becomes ill because of their job, this insurance can help cover expenses.
Commercial Property insurance
Not only does commercial property insurance help fix your building, and repair or replace inventory or gear should something happen, but it can also help pay for the revenue you lose while the repairs are being made.
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