Denver Could Overhaul Licensing System for Restaurants, Food Outlets

Molly Martin
The overhaul would affect every restaurant in Denver (pictured: Bar Dough).
With an eye toward making the application and renewal processes easier and more equitable, the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses wants to overhaul the city's food licensing system.

"This is the largest overhaul in the food licensing proposal in Denver since 1950," says Eric Escudero, a spokesperson for Excise and Licenses, which unveiled its proposed changes to food license fees on December 1.

The two biggest changes would be significantly reducing the number of fee categories that food businesses can fall under, and also establishing flat $150 rates for application fees for wholesalers and restaurants.

"The proposed changes would positively impact food-related licenses, reducing fees for most food licensees in the City and County of Denver. If the proposal is adopted, we believe Denver’s food licensing fees would be some of the lowest in the state," Excise and Licenses wrote in a bulletin about the proposal that the department sent out on December 1.

The current food licensing system is definitely convoluted. Potential applicants, as well as Excise and Licenses staffers, must look through two separate ordinance provisions to figure out which of the seven application fee categories and 31 licensing fee categories an applicant falls under.

For example, wholesale food outlets fall under different categories depending on whether they're making canned food products or fresh meat, and also depending on how many employees they have. There are different application fees and annual renewal fees for all of these categories.

If approved by Denver City Council, the proposal would create a uniform fee of $150 for an application and $150 for each annual renewal for wholesalers.

Restaurants and other retail food outlets have even more categories right now, depending on the number of employees and the type of food produced. The proposal calls for a $150 fee for restaurant license applications and then a $25 to $225 annual licensing fee, depending on certain food and preparation risk factors.  For example, a company that produces CBD tinctures for human consumption and no other food currently has to pay $445 annually for its license. Under the new proposal, it would only pay $25. If a restaurant is infusing food with hemp, it would also see a fee reduction, from $445 to a maximum of $225 annually.

Under the proposal, licensing for temporary restaurants, food peddlers and ice cream vendors will remain the same. Currently, temporary restaurants don't have to pay any application fee but must pay an annual licensing fee of $100 plus $10 per day for the first five days of the event. Food peddlers have $25 application fees and $50 annual licensing fees, while ice cream vendors have to pay $50 application fees and $25 per year for staying licensed.

A slide deck that Excise and Licenses has prepared to present to Denver City Council shows that these new restaurant fees would be lower than those in El Paso County and Boulder County, while the wholesale fees would be about average compared to fees across Colorado.

According to that slide deck, 85 percent of wholesale food businesses would see a reduction in their annual licensing fees, while 81 percent of retail food businesses would see either no change or a reduction.

Additionally, all of the licensing processes would be moved online, albeit with an in-person option if needed.

The Denver City Council Business, Arts, Workforce and Aviation committee will consider the proposal on December 7, with the full council ultimately voting on it in the coming weeks.