Florida Restaurateurs and Food Service Caterer License Defense

Are you a restaurateur or food service caterer in Florida who’s received an Administrative Complaint from the Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR)? Are you concerned about what this could mean for the future of your business and reputation? Owning a restaurant or catering service often takes years of hard work and dedication. An Administrative Complaint can potentially lead to a loss of license in the business you’ve worked so hard to build. If you are subject to a formal complaint, no matter how groundless it may be, you must partner with a professional license defense attorney with experience in Florida’s food industry laws to protect the future of your restaurant and reputation.

What Responsibilities Do Restaurateurs and Food Service Caterers Have?

Restaurateurs and food service caterers are responsible for everything ranging from liquor liability to employee safety. Both are governed under Florida Statute Chapter 509 under the Lodging and Food Service Establishment and are defined as:

“Any building, vehicle, place, or structure … where food is prepared, served, or sold for immediate consumption on or in the vicinity of the premises; called for or taken out by customers; or prepared prior to being delivered to another location for consumption.”

Under this statute, restaurateurs and food service caterers must ensure that all food service employees are certified in safe food handling within 60 days of employment. If alcohol is served at the restaurant, the owners and managers must ensure that all laws and regulations are followed to maintain their liquor license.

For example, a restaurateur or caterer must:

  • Train all employees who handle liquor and complete specialized training
  • Always check the ID of anyone who looks under the age of 30
  • Not sell alcohol to anyone under the age of 21
  • Not sell alcohol during unauthorized times
  • Not continue serving alcohol to an intoxicated person

Breaking any of these laws could result in a loss of liquor license and potential criminal and civil penalties.

Why is Having a Valid License Necessary to Operate a Restaurant or Food Service Establishment?

The State of Florida will shut down a restaurant should it operate without a license. Various licenses are mandatory to serve food and liquor, have live music, and serve food on a patio in Florida. Restaurants and catering services must meet all requirements for safe food preparation, storage, and safety regulations before a food service license is granted. Having a food service license also demonstrates that the restaurant is current with all food safety laws. These licensing mandates are intended to protect the public from unsafe food handling and irresponsible food and liquor serving that could result in severe illness, injury, or loss of life.

Who Grants Licensure to Restaurateurs and Food Service Caterers in Florida?

A business license is required from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants to operate a restaurant or food service catering company in Florida. Various forms are needed to maintain this license, and depending on the type of restaurant, additional permits may be required, like a liquor and food service license.

What Are Common Complaints Made Against Restaurants and Caterers in Florida?

Restaurant and food service caterers can face disciplinary action from a variety of complaints. Often, customers submit complaints related to:

  • Meals served at incorrect temperatures
  • Ill-equipped restrooms
  • Dirty tables and utensils
  • Employee cleanliness
  • Automatic gratuities

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have largely been related to the lack of masks worn by staff and patrons. Additionally, complaints of restaurants failing to limit customer capacity by fifty percent have reportedly been ignored by many locations, despite state and local mandates.

Complaints That Could Result in Disciplinary Action

Restaurateurs and caterers can face disciplinary action and risk losing their food service, liquor, and business licenses should an investigation find that laws and regulations set to protect the public and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are broken.

Disciplinary action from the DBPR can often result from complaints related to:

  • Food poisoning
  • Storing food at unsafe temperatures
  • Failing to pass health inspections repeatedly
  • Failing to provide food handler training
  • Serving liquor irresponsibly
  • Rodent infestations

Any of these complaints can result in serious legal consequences and damage to your reputation. If you’re confronted with a complaint against your restaurant or food service, it’s vital that you partner with a professional license defense attorney as soon as possible.

How Does Someone File a Complaint?

Anyone who wants to file a complaint against a restaurant or food service in Florida would do so by contacting the DBPR and filling out a Consumer Complaint Form or a Foodborne Illness Form. DBPR’s online service also enables the public to confirm that a restaurant or food service catering business has a license.

What is the Complaint Process Like in Florida?

When a complaint is received against a restaurateur, food service caterer, or any business professional in Florida, it’s reviewed by an investigator with the DBPR. The investigation includes gathering enough information to decide whether the complaint can proceed to the next step.

Information collected during an investigation often comprises:

  • Interviewing complainants
  • Interviewing the subject of the complaint
  • Interviewing witnesses
  • Issuing subpoenas
  • Recording statements under oath
  • Gathering documented evidence
  • Preparing reports

As a professional restaurateur, it is highly suggested that you hire a knowledgeable and skilled attorney to help you develop an effective response to the investigation procedure. Often, an experienced attorney can end the investigation process at its initial stage, preventing you from experiencing any additional harm to your reputation or food service business.

The Probable Cause Panel Reviews the Complaint

If the investigation acquires enough proof to move the allegation to the next step, the complaint will be reviewed by a Probable Cause Panel. This will typically involve members of the DBPR’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants who assess the documents and evidence related to the claim.

During this process, it’s essential that you have your defense attorney and do not attempt to manage the situation alone.

The panel review can result in three possible outcomes:

  • Finding “no probable cause”
  • Issuing a “letter of guidance”
  • Issuing a formal Administrative Complaint

A finding of “no probable cause” is a dismissal of the case, which means there was not enough evidence proving that you violated any rule or regulation. A “letter of guidance” is not a disciplinary action, but it’s issued when the panel finds that a minor violation did occur. The most severe outcome is when a formal Administrative Complaint is issued against you.

Process of the Administrative Complaint

An Administrative Complaint against you identifies the statements and evidence found during the investigation and the specific laws or regulations you’re charged with violating. After consulting with your lawyer, you can choose to attend either an Informal Hearing or a Formal Hearing.

Informal Hearing

If you decide to proceed with an Informal Hearing, that means you do not wish to dispute any of the allegations against you, nor do you intend to bring forth any new evidence. Instead, you’re accepting the complaints. You’ll face the Board again, where they’ll make a final decision on what penalties will be enforced against you.

Formal Hearing

If you choose to dispute the allegations and facts found against you during the investigation, you proceed with a Formal Hearing. This hearing is before Florida’s Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) and presided over by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). The ALJ considers the evidence from both sides and makes a final Recommended Order to the Board. The Board then makes a final decision regarding disciplinary actions.

You can appeal the decision by filing a petition for judicial review if your business, liquor, or food license is suspended or revoked. Your attorney is your most valuable ally as you go through this process—always consult with them before making any decisions.

How Can a Professional License Defense Attorney Help?

At The Umansky Law Firm, our professional license defense team investigates every case to discover the facts and the best method to protect your business license as a restaurateur or food service caterer.

Some complaints against restaurants and food service caterers can go to criminal court, and you can face criminal charges. Having an experienced criminal lawyer who handles professional license defense is essential.

Umansky lawyers can support you in a variety of ways, including:

  • Review the complaint against you and build a defense by securing evidence, documents, and witnesses that benefit you
  • Prevent you from incriminating yourself as you defend against the allegations
  • Defend against impending criminal charges that can arise from the complaint
  • Determine the motive or bias of the person who made the complaint against you
  • Help you respond to the Probable Cause Investigation by securing documents, witnesses, and other methods to establish there is no probable cause for the complaint
  • Try to get the complaint dismissed by the Probable Cause Panel
  • Argue that a guidance letter is better than a prosecution
  • Mitigate any potential penalties the Board or Agency may want to take
  • Present evidence, witnesses, and cross-examine State’s witnesses at a formal review hearing
  • Help challenge the findings at an informal review hearing
  • Appeal the hearing

Call Skilled Professional License Defense Attorneys in Orlando

If you have been accused of violating a law or regulation that may cause the DBPR to revoke your restaurant’s business or liquor license, contact The Umansky Law Firm to defend you. As experienced trial attorneys with a thorough understanding of the evidence code, we can help build a robust defense for you, which may include dismissal of the citation, complaint, or allegation against you.

Attorneys at The Umansky Law Firm include former prosecutors and defense lawyers, and some have experience working directly for the DBPR. That experience tied with our criminal defense background enables us to build a strong defense for you and help you avoid license suspension and criminal prosecution in the administrative action. To speak with an administrative defense attorney about your business license to run a Florida restaurant, complete an online contact form or call today at (407) 228-3838.