Turning an old building into a place where great food, good company, and insightful conversations abound can be daunting. A restaurateur has to pour out every last ounce of effort, patience, and resources to see their dream come to life. While it can get challenging and stressful, it’s not impossible!

Are you starting your journey to opening a restaurant? Here are six steps for successfully transforming a building into a restaurant.

Comply with the city’s zoning by-laws to have a smooth-flowing restaurant remodel project.

Step 1: Be in the Zone

It’s vital to follow your city’s zoning by-laws. Every town has a unique land use plan that specifies the areas that can and cannot be used for specific types of businesses. There are regulations that indicate if a property is suitable for residential or commercial use. Stipulated in these laws are rules for property size, placement, the height of a structure, and others.

Understand your city’s zoning laws by consulting your councillor, alderman, or talking with a restaurant owner in your neighbourhood. You can also connect with homeowners’ associations, business development associations, and community land trusts.

Here are some tips to help the first-time restaurant owner secure the essential permits and licenses needed to set up your restaurant:

  • Identify the appropriate zoning laws. One way to determine which zoning laws apply is to start with the lowest government level and work your way up. For instance, your city’s zoning regulations will be the most relevant to your business. However, you are still required to comply with all other requirements needed for a restaurant.
  • Know your zoning code. Zoning categories and codes vary from city to city. You can find out yours by asking your county or municipality’s clerk’s office, city attorney’s office, or your local library. If you’re from Toronto, you can access the zoning by-laws here.
  • Find out if restaurants are allowed to operate in your zone. Get some formal advice on securing licenses and permits for restaurants from the relevant departments. In Toronto, applying for the Preliminary Zoning Review Program is the simplest way to know if restaurants are permitted in a specific location. This allows business owners to assess if the property is compliant to the zoning by-laws. You can check out Toronto’s new zoning by-law on this website.
  • Learn about liquor regulations. If you want to sell alcohol at your new restaurant, you need to know if your chosen location for your restaurant is zoned for alcohol sales. To be able to sell liquor in Toronto, business owners need to secure a liquor licence from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO).
  • Get a zoning permit. A zoning permit from the municipal government is necessary if you need to modify an existing property (e.g. changing it from residential to commercial) or implement structural changes on the property. This legal document is not the same as a building permit.

Propose a lease agreement that favours you and your landlord.

Step 2: Settle your lease.

You may need to negotiate a lease with your landlord if you don’t own your property. Here are some methods you can consider when negotiating a contract:

  • Allowance – In this term, you and your landlord will have to agree with a specific amount of money for a facelift. This could be arbitrary or based on how much work you plan to do.
  • Rent abatement – You will agree to not pay the rent until your business achieves preset, specific milestones (e.g. after the opening day, or three months into operations).
  • Concessions – Your landlord will cover the necessary work until the property is ready for turnover to the tenant; you will then be responsible for completing the needed work.

It may help to make your landlord understand that by introducing a promising and profitable venture into their space, the value of their property can rise while gaining a long-term tenant.


Step 3: Plan your budget (and prepare to go overboard).

Even with a detailed plan on hand, you will likely exceed your budget (at least a little) during construction. Allot extra funds to cover overages that may arise. You don’t want to stop the job halfway due to insufficient funds. One way you can project the budget you will need is to determine whether you wish to renovate, refurbish, or retrofit your property.

Renovation is the process of repairing a structure to revive its functional state. If you want to refurbish a building, it means you want to clean, redecorate, and reequip it. And to retrofit a property means adding components that were not part of the original construction. This may include installing insulation, heating/cooling systems, or window glazing.

Identifying the type of project you want to accomplish, and the materials you will need will help you give an estimate of the overall cost you will need to cover. There are also low-cost restaurant remodel ideas that you can consider as you plan your project.


Step 4: Design your kitchen.

After the paperwork and budget are roughed out, the next big piece of planning is designing the kitchen. You will need to consider:

  • Equipment – Cooking, refrigeration, and ventilation equipment will be the biggest investments once you get into this project. If you already know what you want to cook, your kitchen supplier or architect can help you get the equipment you need.
  • Ventilation – Your kitchen needs to have a proper balance of extractor fans to suck out smoke and pollutants and natural ventilation to let in the fresh air.
  • Fire safety – You may need to install a sprinkler system with proper connection to water to easily put out fires in all areas.
  • Storage – Maintain a highly organized space by storing dry goods, spices, and utensils in clean shelves. Make sure to position them near ranges and prep tables to give cooks easy access.
  • Cleaning – Maintain a clean grease trap and pipes to reduce the risks of contamination and fires. Tidy it up before fats and grease accumulate.


Step 5: Comply with building regulations.

After being granted a zoning permit, the next vital document is a building permit. The basic standards for building safety include health and safety, fire protection, structural sufficiency, construction materials, and plumbing and mechanical systems.

Below are some of the requirements you need to meet before getting a building permit as stipulated in the Ontario Building Code:

  • Lighting – Ensure sufficient bright light in the kitchen, preparation, and storage areas. Adequate lighting is required, especially in food preparation. Protective light covers are recommended for fluorescent lamps.
  • Ventilation – Cooking areas must be equipped with an exhaust fan, canopy, and filters. Washrooms and dishwashing equipment must have mechanical ventilation that’s vented to the outside.
  • Mezzanines – A mezzanine shall be treated as part of the main floor area if any exiting from the mezzanine directs people down and through the main floor level. A mezzanine that has a separate exit from the main floor area shall be considered as an independent floor area.
  • Occupant load – An occupant load of 1.1 sq.m. net floor area per person is required for licensed restaurants. Occupant load calculations are specific to the use of different areas within the establishment.
  • Hand wash and lavatory basin – A separate lavatory for the hand washing of employees shall be constructed in a location convenient for employees in each manufacturing, processing, and preparation area.

Your restaurant will be inspected, so make sure to maintain excellent health standards. The health department will also assess your restaurant to check the cleanliness of exhaust filters, your refrigeration temperature, and the number of functional sinks, among other concerns.

Step 6: Nail your inspections.

As you prep for the inspections, set a cleaning and maintenance schedule to make sure your operation runs smoothly once in full swing. If you don’t pass the initial review, focus on any weak points indicated by the inspector and apply for a reinspection.

When building the restaurant of your dreams, having a general building contractor by your side makes the job faster and more convenient. From planning to execution, you can trust that your contractor can help you realize your vision in every step of the way.

Contact PT General Contractor when you need a partner for your project. Dealing with permits and municipalities can be a nightmare, but we can take care of the legal side of things as well as the construction. As a specialist in restaurant conversions, we can save you more time and effort. Call us at (416) 757-9100 today or browse through our complete range of services.