Liquor License 101 for Restaurants and Bars

If you’re starting up your own restaurant, bar, brewery, or event space and you plan on serving alcohol, you’re going to need a liquor license. It doesn’t matter the state where your business will be located: it’s always illegal to serve alcohol without a proper license. 

But getting a liquor license can be difficult and time-consuming. And once you have one, you can lose it if you violate state guidelines, whether it’s over-serving your customers, serving minors, selling alcohol during restricted time frames, or disorderly conduct in your establishment. And now with Covid-19 in the picture, state liquor authorities are temporarily revoking liquor licenses from restaurants and bars violating mandated health and safety protocols related to the pandemic.

Here’s everything you need to know about getting a liquor license in 2020: what it is, how much it costs, and what to expect from the process. 

What is a liquor license?

A liquor license makes it legal for your establishment to sell alcohol. Liquor licenses are issued by the state in which your business operates, as different states have different regulations relating to alcohol sales. Requiring restaurants and bars to obtain a liquor license makes it possible for the state and municipal government to enforce their alcohol policies.

What kind of liquor license do I need?

The type of license you need depends on how you sell or serve alcohol. The two primary “categories” are on-license and off-license.

  • On-license: This is for businesses that are selling or serving alcohol to be consumed on-premises. (Also called on-premise or on-sale licenses.) This is the type of license that a restaurant or bar needs to obtain.
  • Off-license: Specifically for businesses selling alcohol to be consumed elsewhere. Liquor stores, wine shops, and grocery and convenience stores are all examples of businesses that sell alcohol for “carry-out,” requiring an off-license.

There are several types of on-licenses that restaurants and bars may need to apply for, depending on the type of alcohol you’re serving and the manner in which you’re serving it. A few common examples:

  • Restaurant liquor license: This is generally known as the “all liquor license” because it allows a business to serve all types of alcohol
  • Beer and wine liquor license: Unlike the “all liquor license,” a beer and wine liquor license doesn’t permit you to sell stronger spirits.
  • Tavern liquor license: This is commonly used for restaurants that serve both food and alcohol but have at least 50% of sales generated solely from liquor. 
  • Server license: Some jurisdictions require individual servers to apply for a server license in addition to a liquor license. Any staff serving alcohol of any kind must take a liquor class prior to getting this license, which educates them on the kinds of alcohol there is, the legal amounts in which to serve it according to the state, and DUI and DWI laws. 

How much does a liquor license cost?

How much a liquor license costs depends on the state you’re operating in and the type of license you’re applying for. The range can be anywhere from $50 to more than $300,000. The average, however, is around $1,400. 

Keep in mind that you might be expected to pay additional processing fees depending on your local regulations. Some states have Liquor License Quotas, which means that only a certain number of licenses can be in use at the same time, depending on the population of the area. If that’s the case, then a new liquor license can be more expensive due to limited supplies. 

How do I apply for a liquor license? 

Applying for and obtaining a liquor license is a bit of process. There are a number of steps you have to take (and hoops you have to jump through) not only to get your license, but to maintain it.

  • Know your state’s liquor laws 

Before you can apply for a liquor license, you have to know what you’re applying for. Remember, there are different licenses available depending on what kind of establishment you’re opening: a restaurant, a tavern or bar, or a liquor store. Also be sure to brush up on any additional requirements your city or county may have in place. You can consult your local Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board for this information, or you can check with your state’s alcohol or liquor agency.

  • Get all of your business permits

Before you apply for your liquor license, check to see what kinds of permits you’ll need for your application. Here again, your local ABC board can be a great resource. Check their website to see which ones you’ll need. (Once you have them, keep all of the paperwork secure and on-hand, as you’ll most likely have to present it.)

  • Apply with your local ABC board

Once you’re familiar with your local laws and know the type of license you’ll need, then it’s time to apply with ABC board in your area. You can do so in person, or in some cases, you may be able to apply online. 

  • Defend your proposal 

You might need to defend your case as to why you want to sell alcohol in a public hearing if a member of your local community protests your application. 

  • Renew your liquor license and permits

Applying for a liquor license isn’t just a one-time thing. Expect to renew your license and permits every one to three years. And keep in mind: if you’re found to be in violation of liquor laws, you could have your license suspended or revoked altogether. 

How long does it take to get a liquor license?

Like we said: getting your liquor license is a process. In some cases, expect to wait weeks or even months for your application to be processed and approved. The standard waiting time to hear back from your local ABC board is up to six months.  If you live in a state with quotas, it can take longer, as you’ll have to wait for another business to forfeit theirs (or you can try to buy one on the secondary market).

So if you know you want the option to sell or serve alcohol, our advice is apply for your license as soon as you can in your startup process.

Liquor licenses: worth the hassle?

Getting your liquor license requires a lot of patience and planning — and it can be a financial investment, too. Beyond obtaining the license itself, there are other costs that go into serving alcohol, like equipment, server training, building out a drink menu, etc.

For bars, obviously, getting a liquor license is a no-brainer; for other establishments, you’ve got to decide whether it’s worth the hassle on and cost on the front end as well as the effort to maintain it. Take into account your location, hours, menu, and customer base/demographic. For example, a family or kid-focused establishment may choose not to serve alcohol. The same goes for restaurants that operate only on weekdays, during regular business hours — like breakfast spots, or cafes and coffeehouses catering to working professionals.

But many customers expect alcohol as an option, especially if your restaurant operates on evenings and weekends, or if your menu lends itself to alcohol pairings. It’s also important to note that alcohol sales generally have higher margins than food sales, so financially speaking, a liquor license is often worth the up-front hassle. 

Bottom line: before pursuing a liquor license, be sure that serving alcohol in your establishment is actually going to benefit your business. If you decide to move forward, don’t be intimidated by the process. Simply do your research on the front-end: determine the licenses you need, learn about the regulations that apply, and understand the associated costs and timeline. 

(Need help staffing your bar? Read our tips for hiring a bar manager here!)

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We know how important same-day payments are for veterans of the service industry who are accustomed to quick cash — and we’re now seeing that same demand expand into other industries as well. 

Kickfin co-founder Justin Roberts joined MasterCard’s InConversation Webinar series to discuss why immediate payment disbursal is key for the restaurant industry and the gig economy as a whole.

Watch the webinar here or read our recap for the highlights: 

People live paycheck-to-paycheck

Not just some people are living paycheck to paycheck. Most people are. 

That’s right: around 64% of U.S. consumers are just getting by. Even more shocking, 51% of consumers who earn over six figures are still living paycheck to paycheck, despite their higher tax bracket. 

It’s a major reason why employees need access to their earnings sooner rather than later. The pressure of watching your bank account slowly drain in the two weeks between payday is putting a lot of pressure on people, leading to a much greater demand for instant payments than ever before. 

Instant payouts are now table stakes

A PYMNTS study found that people of all ages prefer to be paid out immediately, as well as some other interesting statistics:

  • When given the choice, 68% of respondents said they would opt for an instant pay out
  • 40% of gig workers surveyed were willing to pay a fee for an instant disbursement
  • 81% of respondents were willing to switch jobs to an employer that offers instant access to earned wages and tips

It’s safe to say instant payouts are becoming the expectation for today’s modern workforce. But not all instant payouts are created equal.

Consumers are much more likely to engage with an instant payout system if they aren’t required to share their bank account and routing numbers and can access funds with just their debit card credentials. Why? It’s faster, more convenient, and feels more secure. 

Instant payouts and tip management: a perfect use case.

Instant payout innovation has come at the perfect time for the restaurant industry, which is struggling more than ever with the hassles and cost of cash.

If you’re in the restaurant biz, then you know: Most consumers pay with credit cards these days, not cash. That means there’s rarely enough cash on hand to pay out tips at the end of a shift. But employees still want and need instant access to their tip earnings.

Enter: instant payouts. Offering employees the option to receive their tip earnings directly to their bank of choice, the second their shift ends, can go a long way in improving employee satisfaction and ensuring their financial security.

But instant payouts are more than a work perk for employees. The operational benefits for employers range from reduced administrative burden and significant time savings to stronger compliance and streamlined reporting.

Modernizing your tip management strategy: 5 best practices 

There are three key components to your tip management strategy: 

  • Tip pool policy: How are you divvying up tips among your staff? 
  • The payout method: How are you distributing those payments?
  • The systems and tech: What are you using to facilitate those payments?

Under the current circumstances, restaurant operators are under immense pressure to bring their tip management into the future. 

5 best practices for tip management 

Based on our experience working with restaurant operators across the country, we’ve found that these five practices are the perfect recipe for building a successful tip management system.  

  1. Determine the right model and method for your restaurant, based on your location and tech stack
  2. Get a written tip policy (and get it legally approved
  3. Solicit employee feedback in a structured way
  4. Leverage technology for efficiency, accuracy, and compliance
  5. Don’t over-complicate (but do over-communicate!)

Tip management solution must-haves

When seeking a new tip management solution, make sure you carefully vet each system to see if it really meets your needs, or if it’ll be just as frustrating as cash. Here are a few suggestions for what should be on your checklist: 

  • Instant payouts
  • Direct to bank of choice
  • Availability of employee funds
  • Payroll option 
  • Integrations 
  • Simple implementation + onboarding process 
  • Around-the-clock customer service 

Big emphasis on strong customer support teams. Restaurants and bars don’t have “typical” business hours, so neither should your tech support.

Bar Louie automates payouts with Kickfin 

In a recent case study, we took a deep dive into our partnership with Bar Louie, a chain with over 60 locations that took advantage of our new integration with Toast. They made the switch from cash payouts to Kickfin’s instant, direct-to-bank payouts and haven’t looked back.  

Two-minute tip-outs

Before Kickfin, managers spent an average of 45 minutes per shift working through Bar Louie’s complex tip out policy and counting cash. The tip pooling rules were important to them — it’s what makes the entire staff feel like they’re getting their fair share. 

Using the Kickfin0Toast integration, Bar Louie was able to automate the tip pool calculation process and send tips straight to employees in under two minutes – a potential annual savings of 15,000 labor hours across all locations.

>> See more customer success stories 

Do you want to see these kinds of cost-saving results at your business? Let’s talk. Get a demo of Kickfin and see why restaurant owners and employees alike trust us to manage their tips.

Kickfin’s best-in-class tip calculation tool has some exciting new bells and whistles.

If you’re already using Kickfin’s tip pool calculator, then you know how much time and hassle you’re saving by automating everything. (And if you’re not? Head over to our tip pooling software page to see how it works!)

As we partner with more restaurants to bring their tip management into the future, we’re continuing to innovate our product so we can address their biggest pain points.

In this case, that means enhancing our tip pooling features so you can auto-calculate tip amounts even for the most complex or unique tip pool or share policies.

Check out a few of our latest features that will make tip calculations easier than ever.

New Release: Splitting Large Party Tips 

If your restaurant often hosts large parties, you know that the tip share can get confusing. Say one server is taking care of a party of 40 with a bartender assigned to only make drinks for that party. Meanwhile, the server has a few other two-top tables that are getting drinks from the main service bar. At the end of the night, how do you ensure that the large-party bartender gets their fair share of the tip out (without spending an hour on your phone calculator)? 

Kickfin can now automate that process for you, alleviating questions from your event bartender and saving time and effort on the part of your managers. 

Seamless Integrations 

Kickfin is partnering with your POS system to integrate seamlessly with your existing restaurant tech. Already, we’re serving Toast customers through our integration — and your POS just might be up next. 

Kickfin integration users get access to new product features first, like our new tip-out transparency tool. Your employees can log into their Kickfin accounts and see exactly how their tips have been split between team members, offering them full transparency into your tip policy in action.

Manager Tips 

We’re always listening to feedback to improve the Kickfin experience, and this one goes out to all of our restaurant partners who asked us to streamline the manager tip reallocation process.

>>Learn more about managers & tipping laws

In most cases, managers are not allowed to earn tips since they are salaried employees. But we all know that managers often step in and take care of tables to help servers get out of the weeds. Well-meaning guests will most likely leave a tip, not knowing that the manager technically can’t accept them — so where does that money go?

Kickfin now features a default pool, where tips “paid” to a manager are automatically redistributed to tipped staff based on your restaurant’s tip policy. 

Improved Labor Data Accuracy

We all know how easy it is for an employee to forget to clock out after a long shift. And sure, they aren’t going to get paid for a 16-hour overnight shift, but when payday comes around, those extra hours create a nightmare for your payroll team. 

With Kickfin, all employees are required to be clocked out in order to finalize payments — so you’ll catch the labor data mistake long before your payroll team has to sort it out. 

Even Better Security 

We’re committed to protecting you and your employees’ hard-earned money, so we’re adding an extra layer of security for certain transactions. You can now enable double approval of payments that meet certain conditions:

  • First payment for new employees
  • Employees getting their first payout in X number of days
  • Employees receiving more than X payouts in a 24-hour period. 

With these extra guardrails in place, you can always be sure that the right money is going to the right person. Reach out to our support team to configure your custom security measures.

Using Kickfin is a win-win for operators, managers, and employees alike. Restaurateurs save on cash delivery and labor costs, managers shave hours off their workload, and servers have the same instant payment that they’re used to — without the hassle and uncertainty of cash. 

Want to learn more about Kickfin? Let us show you the ropes with a demo

You heard it here first: 2024 is the year of integrations. 

In an effort to make Kickfin even more user-friendly and adaptable for our partners, we’re working with restaurant tech leaders to integrate our tip management solution with their existing systems. 

First up — Toast! A trailblazer for cloud-based restaurant management technology, Toast is a favorite POS system for restaurants, food trucks, and bars. You probably know them best for being the first to create handheld POS devices, drastically changing the entire restaurant ecosystem. To make life easier for their customers, Toast partnered with Kickfin to create an integration that makes tip pooling, tip distribution, and calculation smoother. 

As restaurant tech innovators ourselves, this partnership is the perfect fit for Kickfin. 

Our goal at Kickfin is always to save time for managers, prevent loss for operators, and create more financial freedom for hospitality employees through pioneering technology that digitizes many of the analog processes that the restaurant industry is built on. 

As a member of the Toast Partner Ecosystem, we’ll be able to deliver our product to Toast customers and modernize their tip management systems with ease. Using technology that they’re already familiar with, Toast customers can reap the benefits of Kickfin with minimal ramp-up upon implementation.

“No two restaurants split tips the same way, but invariably, it takes too long and involves too much risk,”  said Justin Roberts, the co-CEO of Kickfin. “This integration allows for the utmost customization with a near-zero learning curve — truly the best of both worlds for restaurants that want to save time, reduce labor costs and make life easier for their team.”

And one of their partners is already enjoying the ROI with Kickfin. Bar Louie takes great pride in making tip distribution equitable for all of their employees, so they rely on a complex tip pooling system to ensure fair pay. Prior to using Kickfin, managers at each of their 60 locations spent 45 minutes at the end of every shift to make calculations and divvy out funds to all of their servers. Now, they’ve streamlined their tip-out process with Kickfin — and managers are doing the same work in less than a minute! That’s an annual average of 15,000 hours saved across their entire chain. 

>> Hear more Kickfin success stories

After implementing Kickfin, managers can spend their time on what matters most: delivering excellent customer service. That means more table touches, more support for your staff, and more time to focus on server training. 

With managers spending more time on the floor (instead of counting cash in the back), you’ll see better customer reviews, better service, and increased sales — all from digitizing your tip-outs with Kickfin.

We’re excited about our new partnership with Toast and the opportunity to make digital tipping a reality for their customers. For restaurants who aren’t using Toast, don’t worry! We look forward to providing similar integrations across the restaurant tech industry.  

Want to see these results for yourself? Find out how to become a Kickfin integration partner or check out a demo of our platform.

No growing pains here! 

We’re thrilled to announce that Inc. listed Kickfin in their list of the top 10 fastest growing companies in the Southwest. (In fact, we earned the #1 spot in the software category and were listed as #9 overall!) We’re honored to be included alongside innovative companies that are making a big difference in our region. 

Inc. measured Kickfin’s growth from 2020 to 2022 — which wasn’t an easy time for the restaurant industry, to say the least. In spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, restaurant concepts across the country embraced Kickfin’s technology. 

As a group, the 2024 Inc. honorees averaged 136% growth and created 17,606 new jobs over a two-year period. Individually, Kickfin grew by a whopping 1,304% (yes, really!).

We want to recognize and thank both our amazing customers and the Kickfin team for being part of our success story and allowing us to be a part of theirs. 

Our Customers

For years, restaurants manually calculated and paid out cash tips — despite the increasing hassle and liability those old-school methods entail. It’s not because operators are tech-averse; there simply wasn’t a good way to automate the process that didn’t create new friction or require new workarounds. 

That’s precisely why we developed Kickfin. Of course, we’re proud of what we built and the team behind it (more on that below). But we owe a great deal of our success to the customers who trusted us enough to give Kickfin a shot — especially those early adopters who are now some of our longest-standing customers.

There’s a leap of faith involved when you partner with a vendor and layer in new technology, particularly when it impacts something as important and sensitive as how you pay your people.  We don’t take that lightly, and we are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to serve each and every customer who’s been on this journey with us.

>> Hear from our customers about their experiences with Kickfin

Our Team 

Every person on our team wholeheartedly believes in our mission and vision for the future. In short: we’re here to make the tip management process insanely easy for everyone so that paying out your people is (almost!) as great as getting paid. 

As backstory: Our co-founders, Brian and Justin, came up with the idea for Kickfin while dining out together and noticing that an armored car was dropping off cash. They asked why a restaurant would need a cash delivery when most patrons pay by card; the manager explained the cash was needed to pay out tips at the end of the shift. The inefficiency (and expense, and risk…) of that process was a lightbulb moment for Brian and Justin.

They set out to build a team who not only understood the problem, but could think critically and creatively about a solution — and bring it to life. 

From sales and marketing to product and support, every Kickfin employee has had a hand in the growth and success of our company, thanks to their passion for our purpose and their commitment to being best in class.

We’re proud of what we’ve achieved thus far, and we’re excited to continue collaborating with our customers, innovating on their behalf, and taking Kickfin to the next level together. Onward and upward!

See Kickfin in action!