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Doing Business in San Rafael

Start a Business


Step one is to develop a business plan.  Write down your business goals and action steps to help clarify and organize your priorities.

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How to Start a Business in San Rafael
Starting a business can be challenging - it is critical that you understand all of the potential issues and costs before you sign a lease or make significant investments in your new business. This checklist is intended to help guide you through the process.

Step #1: Develop a Plan: Any successful business starts with a solid business plan – a plan should clarify your goals and explore the strengths and weaknesses of your business proposition. The plan should identify potential issues, estimate costs, and provide concrete action items and milestones for your business. For assistance with your plan, you might take a class with the Small Business Development Center or contact the City of San Rafael’s Economic Development Division to discuss your business idea.

Step #2: Talk to the City: – Contact the City of San Rafael Planning Department 415-485-3085 to discuss your proposed location and other related issues. You will need to provide the details of your operations and discuss with the Planner these five key questions:
1. Is my business allowed at the address where I want to locate?
2. Will my business trigger any parking requirements?
3. Will my business require a use permit?
4. What is the process for getting any other required permits?
5. What will be the process to install a sign for my business?

Step #3: Talk to Other Agencies – Some types of businesses may require you to coordinate with other non-city agencies. Some of the agencies you may need to contact related to your business include issues related to water (Marin Municipal Water District 415-945-1530), garbage (Marin Sanitary Service 415-456-2601), sewer (Central Marin Sanitation Agency 415-459-1455) and health related (Marin County Environmental Health Department 415-499-6907).

Step #3a: Talk to Other Agencies – Restaurants – It is critical for new restaurant owners to check with the various agencies listed in step #3 above related to the following issues:
• Water – You need to understand water related issues for your proposed restaurant location. The billing methodology for commercial water accounts is complex - it is critical to know what the water rates will be for your proposed restaurant location.
• Sewer – You need to know the status of the existing grease interception system at your planned location and the requirements for a grease collection system for your restaurant. Grease collection systems may involve reconfiguration of plumbing and this can be expensive.
• County Health - Whether you are taking over an existing restaurant or starting a new one, you need to check with Marin County Environmental Health to ensure you comply with the County health permit process. Even if the previous business was a restaurant, you may be subject to certain new requirements that did not apply to the previous restaurant or food service business.
• Alcohol – The California Alcohol and Beverage Control Agency (ABC) oversees the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Step #4: Legal Considerations – There are various legal requirements such as naming your business (check with Marin County Clerk/Recorder 415-473-6152), getting an Employer Identification Number (EIN) (check with Employment Development Department 888-745-3886), and developing a legal structure for your business (check with California Secretary of State 916-657-5448). You may want to consult with an attorney on legal considerations for your new business.
Step #5: Construction – If you anticipate any construction (even if minor) at your location, it is important to understand the permit requirements and potential cost. After meeting with your architect or contractor, contact the City of San Rafael Building Department 415-485-3367 to discuss your project. The City will give comments on the plans and the submitter must revise them and resubmit them to the City. Make sure you discuss design professional California Building Code requirements including issues related to the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and Fire Code. Depending on the nature of your project you may need approval from the Design Review Commission and/or the Planning Commission.

Step #5a: Construction for Restaurants - If you want to open a restaurant or you plan to take over an existing restaurant space, before you submit your permits to the City, you will first need to contact the Marin County Environmental Health Services Division 415-499-6907 to discuss your project and submit your plans. As part of their review, the County shares the plans with the Sewer district. The County will give any comments on the construction plans back to the submitter and the submitter must revise the plans and resubmit them to the County. Once the County and Sewer district give final approval of the plans, you can then proceed with submitting your plans to the City per step #5 above.

Step #6: Business License – After you have confirmed your location is allowed and you understand the construction process and costs, contact the City of San Rafael Business License department 415-485-3051. You are required to obtain a business license prior to conducting any business within San Rafael and this license must be renewed every year.

Step #7: Fire Inspection – All new or relocating businesses must get a fire inspection upon occupation. Contact the Fire Prevention department for assistance and a pre-inspection checklist 415-485-3308.

Step #8: Taxes – Yes, two things in life are certain and one of them is taxes. You will need to register with the state and federal government and comply with all regulations related to corporate, payroll, income, and sales taxes. Contact the state Franchise Tax Board and the federal Internal Revenue Service for their requirements. If you sell a product, the California Board of Equalization will help you determine whether you need a seller’s permit.
Step #9: Business Resources – There are a variety of organizations that can assist you with training, networking, and other resources to assist you with your business. Some of the local organizations include Small Business Development Center (training and advice), San Rafael Chamber of Commerce (marketing, networking, advocacy), Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (marketing, networking, advocacy),

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  1. First, you'll want to check to see if the business is allowed where you want to locate it. This should be done before signing a lease or opening a business.
    1. Find out your zoning,  and check with the Planning Division to see if the business is permitted.  Staff will let you know if the proposed business is allowed and whether your off-street parking requirements are satisfied. They will also tell you if a use permit is required.  In general use permits are required for uses involving entertainment, alcohol or heavy parking volumes like schools and exercise studios.  Use permits take time to process so you should adjust your business opening schedule to accommodate this processing time.
  2. Next, you'll want to make sure your building meets all building and fire code requirements. Any structural improvements or modifications to the interior or exterior of existing buildings will require a building permit. Restaurants, entertainment venues and businesses located in mixed use buildings can create fire code challenges that should be addressed by your design professional prior to submitting for building permits.
  3. You'll need a San Rafael business license. This will need to be renewed each year by January 1.
  4. If you are planning to serve food, the Marin County Environmental Health Department reviews all plans and equipment for compliance with State of California health codes. They will also review of the grease collection system. New construction or remodels costing $100,000 or more require an outside interceptor tank. This device is generally installed outside of the building and existing interior plumbing may need to be reconfigured. This issue should be evaluated prior to signing a lease on a food service establishment. The program is administered by Central Marin Sanitation Agency for all properties located in San Rafael.
  5. If you are planning to serve or sell alcohol, you'll need a license.
  6. All new signs and banners, as well as temporary signs and alterations to existing signs, require a sign permit.
  7. All businesses in San Rafael are inspected by the Fire Prevention Bureau. New or relocating businesses are inspected upon move in and existing businesses are inspected semi-annually.
  8. Every commercial water service connection in the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) has a water entitlement, which is the maximum amount of water the district is committed to supply to that service on an annual basis. The water bill for a commercial account is directly related to the entitlement level. Water entitlements for each commercial water meter may vary dramatically, regardless of the type of business located at that site. Therefore, before making the commitment to start a new business or expand an existing one, it is extremely important to know if the entitlement for a site will be adequate to meet the water needs of the business.

From site selection to the regulatory process, we are here to help.

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