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One of the most common questions we get from new or hopeful US-based mobile bar owners is related to the liquor law requirements of the concept. I myself had the dream of a mobile bar for a couple years before having that “Ah-ha” moment of how to do it without needing a liquor license, which I knew wouldn’t be possible in my city given the set of requirements to get one. This post is intended to be a solid overview of what every mobile bar owner should have a solid understanding of regarding liquor laws.

Liquor laws apply to the SALE of alcohol, not the serving of it

I recommend memorizing this short statement because lots of people will come to ask you how you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s easy for people to misunderstand this fact because most places that serve alcohol by the drink also have liquor licenses (restaurants, bars, hotels, etc), but the fact is that as long as you aren’t collecting any money in exchange for alcohol, you do not need a liquor license. Most mobile bars make their money exclusively off charging for the service component of bars: setup, breakdown, bartending, provision of bar tools, coolers, ice, etc.

Not content with just selling service? In MOST places (not all, there are a few mobile bars in the US that live in areas with mobile liquor licenses), there are a few things that hinder mobile bars from getting liquor licenses. The big show stoppers are usually:

  • Requiring a full commercial kitchen that is not shared by another business.
  • Achieving a certain percentage of overall sales through the sale of food (often as high as 50% food to alcohol sales requirement)

Most mobile bars are not in the situation where opening a commercial kitchen and a catering wing is in the cards. However, if you’re still committed to that cause, there have been mobile bars who have partnered with local catering companies to acquire access to a liquor license. If you choose to go this route, do yourself a favor and engage a lawyer who works regularly with the liquor board so that you can ensure you know what the legal requirements, risks, and liabilities are.

Just because you don’t need a liquor license to serve, doesn’t mean that there aren’t regulations to follow.

Most jurisdictions that I know of require bartenders to be ABC certified. The ABC certification is usually a course that instructs bartenders on how to serve responsibly. It provides a basic understanding of alcohol, its affects on the body, and how best to ensure they’re serving guests in a manner that will minimize the risk to the guest, and the liability to the host/business.

There are likely different requirements for public and private events

There is generally very little government regulation over private events, so even if there are regulations that apply to private events, they are likely not often enforced, but if you’re looking to get into festivals or sell things like coffee or other non-alcoholic beverages in public spaces, it’d in your best interest to get your health department on the phone to see what the requirements are and what you need to do to comply.

Details of compliance are likely going to vary from city to city, but a few things they will likely require are

  • three compartment sink
  • hand sink
  • hot water heater

In summary:

Ultimately, the best advice I can give you is to recognize liquor laws and health department regulations differ from city to city, state to state. Seek out expert advice in your local area to ensure you’re following the laws and regulations of your area. Go to them with a solid understanding of what you’re asking, and what it is they need to provide you. Mobile bars often live in a gray area and it’s easy for people in the government to struggle to understand the concept and how it’ll fit into their current set of laws and regulations. Understand it going in that you may be the first person asking them these questions, so be patient and be persistent.