Building Codes, Accessibility, & Inspections


Every restaurant needs to uphold local building codes and pass inspections before they can open their doors.

And before we discuss anything else, there’s one thing you need to know about inspections: they can delay your opening if they aren’t scheduled properly.

Inspection wait times can be much longer than you anticipated, so you should know what to expect as soon as you begin renovations on your building. Call your local government office to find out average wait times for all inspections mentioned in this section, so you can schedule appropriately.

In this section, we’ll cover two main topics: building codes and restaurant inspections. This section will tell you everything you need to know to make sure your structure and operations are compliant with local requirements.

You’ll walk away from this section knowing how to comply with:

  • Commercial kitchen code requirements
  • Restaurant restroom requirements
  • Accessibility requirements
  • Exit sign requirements

We’ll also tell you what you need to know about:

  • Health inspections
  • Inspection grades and health department restaurant ratings
  • Fire inspections

Here’s what you need to know now so you can avoid delays to your opening day (a.k.a. the happiest day of your life).

Restaurant Building Codes

Building Codes, Accessibility, & Inspections

Restaurant building codes determine the structural requirements for your building to be considered a safe location for customers.

Building codes are exhaustive in nature, meaning they can dictate everything from the shade of paint in your food storage spaces to grease interception requirements in your kitchen. Your building must follow structural, safety, sanitary, and accessibility codes to operate in your city.

While you should know your city’s building codes inside and out as a business owner, the good news is that your contractor and architect will also be aware of any local guidelines your business must adhere to.

Here is full documentation for building codes in the following locations:

New York City

Chicago

Toronto

Here we’ll focus on some of the most important requirements for your restaurant: kitchen, restroom, accessibility, and exits.

Commercial kitchen code requirements

New York

This is the complete New York City health code for food establishments.

Some highlights that relate to a commercial kitchen are:

  • Grease interception: your kitchen should be equipped to capture grease from sinks, woks, deep fryers, floor drains, and other fixtures to prevent clogging pipes and sewer backups
  • You’ll need a range hood on gas or electric stoves, fryers, and ovens

Consult with New York City Business Acceleration to review your plans, receive a pre-launch consultation, and have an inspection organized on your behalf.

Chicago

This is the complete Chicago health code for food establishments.

Some highlights that relate to a commercial kitchen are:

  • Floors: Where food or drink is stored or prepared, or in which utensils are washed, the floor needs to be smooth, kept clean and in good repair. If you use floor drains your floor will need to be graded to the drain. All cleaning needs to be done when food is stored away. You’re not allowed to use carpeting.
  • Walls and ceilings: Your walls and ceilings should be clean, non-absorbent, smooth, and painted or finished in a light color. Your floor and wall junction will need a four-inch cove.

Toronto

This is the complete Toronto Equipment Requirements for a Commercial Kitchen.

Some highlights that relate to a commercial kitchen are:

  • Your kitchen will need a hand sink that’s only for hand washing
  • Your refrigerator must be below four degrees Celsius at all times
  • Your freezer must be below 18 degrees Celsius at all times
  • All your food inventory and utensils need to be at least six inches from the floor
  • Never store chemicals with food products

Restaurant restroom requirements

New York

Your restaurant is obligated to provide toilets for its customers – if your restaurant has more than 19 customer seats. But you don’t need to give public access to your employee toilets.

You’ll need to provide one single-gender restroom for every 75 customers of that gender. If you have more than 15 employees, you’ll need a separate employee washroom.

Toilets and urinals need at least 30 inches of space in all directions. You can’t place a toilet or urinal in the direct line of sight of an unlockable door. You also can’t use trough urinals; you’ll need to use flushable urinals.

You’re required to install at least one hand-washing station in the same room as your washroom, and every sink must be separated by at least 20 inches.

Chicago

The Chicago Board of Health has restroom requirements for employees rather than customers. As an employer, you must provide restrooms that are accessible at all times to your employees.

Your restrooms that are located next to your food prep areas need to be completely enclosed with tight-fitting doors that are self-closing. You can’t skip out on the toilet paper, which must be supplied at all times.

You also need to place signs in all employee restrooms that instruct your employees to wash their hands before they go back to work. You also can’t use your restrooms for the storage of equipment, food, or utensils.

Toronto

The Ontario Building Code says that your washrooms should be clean and in good condition.

Your washroom will need to be available to the public, and you’ll need to supply:

  • Toilet paper
  • Constant supply of hot and cold running water
  • Soap or detergent in a dispenser
  • Garbage container
  • Paper towels, a cloth towel roller, or a hot air dryer

Your washrooms need to be accessible on a barrier-free path, and the building code will be able to give you more detail on new amendments for:

  • Requirements for power door operators at the entrance door to all barrier-free and universal washrooms
  • Amended mounting height and location requirements for washroom accessories such as towel dispensers and hand dryers
  • New fold-down grab bar design options to allow for transfer space on both sides of the water closet
  • Requiring an L-shaped grab bar in all cases and removing the option to provide a diagonal grab bar
  • Increased minimum clear floor area in barrier-free washroom stalls required to allow for turning space

Accessibility requirements

New York

You can refer to the New York City Buildings Construction Codes: Accessibility to know more about accessibility compliance in New York.

You may also refer to these digestible resources below to understand how to make your business completely accessible to people with disabilities:

Chicago

Chicago’s Human Rights Ordinance states that every business must “make its services, products, and facilities accessible to people who use wheelchairs due to disability, to the extent possible without undue hardship.”

Examples of accommodations include:

  • a portable ramp
  • a bell or buzzer to call for assistance
  • curb service
  • telephone or internet service
  • arrangements with a neighboring business to use their accessible restroom
  • staff training

You may also refer to these resources below to understand how to make your business completely accessible to people with disabilities:

Toronto

The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act has a set of requirements specifically for nonprofits and businesses based on the number of employees at your restaurant.

If you have more than 20 employees, you will need to file an Accessibility Compliance Report, which confirms that you’re compliant with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.

Ontario’s Building Code requires a “barrier-free path of travel”, which is determined via specifications for building entrances, minimum doorway and corridor widths, ramp dimensions, passing and rest spaces, and turning spaces.

You may also refer to these resources below to understand how to make your business completely accessible to people with disabilities:

Exit sign requirements

New York

The New York City Building Authority has a set of requirements on exit signs used in commercial and public buildings. Here are some highlights:

  • The letters for the word “EXIT” must be in red; other colors aren’t acceptable
  • The letters for the word “EXIT” must be eight inches tall, with a one-inch stroke (line thickness)
  • The background of the sign must be white, translucent, or light grey
  • If you’re using photoluminescent exit signs, they need to be visible for a minimum of eight hours after being exposed to light
  • You can’t use self-luminescent exit signs
  • All signs must be installed at all exit points and stairwells, and the photoluminescent signs need to be mounted in a low location
  • The exit sign at doors should be visible to all people approaching the door

Chicago

The Chicago Buildings And Construction code has a set of requirements on exit signs used in commercial and public buildings. Here are some highlights:

  • Exit signs must be red lettering on a white background
  • The letters and arrows on exit signs should be red
  • The directional arrows underneath sign lettering need to be the same width as the lettering
  • All signs need to be lit with at least a 10-watt electric lamp

Toronto

The Ontario Building Code has a set of requirements on exit signs used in commercial and public buildings. Here are some highlights:

  • Every exit door needs an exit sign placed over or adjacent to it
  • The sign must be visible when you’re approaching the exit
  • The exit sign must depict the standard green pictogram and white graphic symbol as outlined in ISO 3864-1, “Graphical Symbols – Safety Colours and Safety Signs – Part 1: Design Principles for Safety Signs and Safety Markings”

Restaurant Inspections

Your restaurant will receive several inspections throughout the year, and you want to make sure you’re prepared for them.

But as we mentioned earlier, your restaurant will also need to pass several inspections before it even opens – and you’ll want to schedule your inspections as early as possible. Inspection wait times have been known to delay restaurant openings for weeks or sometimes months – don’t let this happen to you. As soon as you begin renovations on your space, call your city office to inquire about wait times for inspections.

Once you’re open, you’ll also want to:

  • Keep a binder of all your past inspections. Inspectors like to see your track record, and it can speed up the process.
  • Always be ready for a health inspection. They are the most frequent type of inspection you’ll receive.

Here’s what you need to know to be prepared for inspections for your restaurant.

Health inspection processes

New York

New York City published a guide for restaurant owners called What to Expect when You’re Inspected so that you … know what to expect when you receive a health inspection.

You’ll receive an unannounced onsite inspection at least once a year. The inspector can visit anytime you’re open, and they record any violations in a handheld computer.

The inspection is done on a points system, and each violation is worth a certain number of points depending on its level of danger to the public. At the end of the inspection, the points are added together for your inspection score. So in this case, a lower score is good because it indicates compliance.

Violations are classified as “critical” or “general”. Critical violations are given more points than general violations because they are more likely to contribute to foodborne illnesses. For example, if you fail to cook food to required temperatures, you’ll get a critical violation, as opposed to failing to place an accurate thermometer in a refrigerator for a general violation.

But watch out – if you get dinged with a “public health hazard” that poses an immediate health threat, the Health Department may shut you down on the spot.

Chicago

The Chicago Department of Public Health will conduct an inspection within 10 days after you pay for your Retail Food Business License application with Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. You should make this payment no later than three to four weeks before your opening day.

The inspection will grade your restaurant on:

  • Food handling practices
  • Product temperature
  • Personal hygiene
  • Facility maintenance
  • Pest control.

Also note that even if you’re not yet open, a menu of proposed food items must be available for review by the inspector. You’ll also need all your building permits, and all the renovation work should be completed.

Refer to Chicago’s food protection quick guide for more information on inspections.

Toronto

Toronto’s Dinesafe inspection and disclosure system upholds the Health Protection and Promotion Act.

The frequency of the inspections will depend on whether your restaurant is classified as high risk, moderate risk, or low risk. Here are the classification criteria:

High: three times per year

  • serve a high risk population
  • use processes involving many preparation steps and foods frequently implicated as the cause of foodborne illness
  • implicated or confirmed as a source of foodborne illness/outbreak

Moderate: twice per year

  • prepare hazardous food without meeting the criteria for high risk
  • prepare non-hazardous foods with extensive handling or high volume

Low: once per year

  • serve pre-packaged hazardous foods
  • prepare and/or serve non-hazardous foods without meeting the criteria for moderate risk
  • are used as a food storage facility for non-hazardous foods only
  • public health concerns related primarily to sanitation and maintenance

Infractions are categorized as minor, significant, or crucial. Here are the criteria for each:

Minor infractions

  • Infractions that present a minimal health risk
  • These items must be corrected by the next inspection

Significant infractions

  • Infractions that present a potential health hazard
  • These items must be corrected within 24–48 hours or legal action may be taken
  • These items indirectly involve food, through handling, preparation, storage and/or service

Crucial infractions

  • Infractions that present an immediate health hazard
  • These items directly involve food, such as contamination, time-temperature abuse or lack of safe (potable) water or any other condition that is a health hazard
  • These items must be corrected immediately or an Order to Close the premises can be issued and/or immediate action must be taken to remove or eliminate the health hazard
  • Enforcement action will be taken

Health department restaurant ratings

New York

As mentioned earlier, New York’s health inspections are based on a points system. You’ll be given a letter grade based on the following number of points:

  • 0-13 = grade A
  • 14-27 = grade B
  • 28+ = grade C

If you receive an A-grade card, you must post it in a place where people can see it as they pass in the front window, door, or an outside-facing wall, within five feet from the front door or other entrance and within six feet from the ground or floor.

If you don’t score an A, you won’t have to post a grade; you’ll be given the opportunity to improve before you’re re-inspected. If you receive a B or C grade on re-inspection, you’ll receive two cards: one showing the letter grade and one that says “Grade Pending”.

Restaurants with B or C grades will receive more frequent inspections in the future.

Chicago

In Chicago, restaurants are graded on an approval/fail basis.

When you pass your inspection, you’ll receive an approval sign for posting. You’ll also be issued a “risk assessment”, which will determine how often you’re inspected in the future.

If you fail your inspection, you’ll be issued a report that outlines all violations and deficiencies. Once you correct your violations you’ll have to request a re-inspection directly from the Chicago Department of Public Health for $50.

Toronto

In Toronto, every restaurant is issued a pass, conditional pass, or closed notice upon inspection.

A Pass notice will be issued when your restaurant is in violation of minor or no infractions during an inspection. If the infractions are repeated, however, you may be be issued a ticket of $45 to $370.

A Conditional Pass notice will be issued when your restaurant is in violation of one or more significant infractions. Your restaurant will then be re-inspected within 24–48 hours of the initial inspection. If you haven’t corrected the infractions for the re-inspection, you’ll be issued a summons to court and maybe a referral to Toronto’s Municipal Licensing and Standards Division.

A Closed notice will be issued when your restaurant is in violation of crucial infractions. You’ll then be visited daily to make sure you’re closed, or additional charges will be issued. You’ll only be able to open again once you’ve corrected the infractions.

In Toronto you’re required to display your health inspection certificate as part of compliance. You’ll be obligated to:

  • Post the food safety inspection notice in an obvious place clearly visible to members of the public, at or near the entrance of the establishment
  • Post the Toronto eating or drinking establishment licence next to the food safety inspection notice
  • Produce copies of the Toronto Public Health Food Safety Inspection Reports relating to the currently posted disclosure notice for your establishment, when requested by any person
  • Notify the Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards Division if there is a change in the management or control of the establishment
  • Notify the Toronto Municipal Licensing and Standards Division of any change or changes to the operation of the business that may result in “risk classification changes”, at least 30 days prior to the change.

Fire inspections

New York

The New York City Buildings Construction Codes: Fire and Smoke Protection Featuresstates that restaurants must use fire and smoke damper products in all HVAC ducts to prevent the spread of fire inside the ductwork through fire-resistance rated walls and floors.

To remain compliant, the New York City Fire Department recommends the following:

  • Clean grease from exhaust systems
  • Maintain hood and fire extinguishing system
  • Make fire extinguishers available
  • Post signs and train staff on fire prevention and fire extinguishing
  • Proper storage and waste disposal

Chicago

The City of Chicago Department of Buildings Fire Safety uses the Life Safety Evaluation method to assess buildings for fire safety. The entity gauges the building’s ability to contain a fire, extinguish a fire, and withstand a fire and respond to an alarm.

These are some of the most common reasons why restaurants in Chicago fail fire inspections:

  • Poor condition of stairs
  • Improper wall & ceiling material
  • No stair rails
  • Improper flame spread rating
  • Storage under stairs
  • Decorations, drapes, curtains are not fire retardant
  • Improper ceiling or sidewalls
  • Plaster holes in ceilings and walls
  • Fire extinguishers not charged
  • Fire extinguishers expired
  • Fire extinguishers not present
  • Fire extinguishers not visible
  • Blocked aisles
  • Obstruction around smoke pipes and vents
  • Working exit and directional lights not present
  • Defective chimney
  • Non-working hood and duct system
  • Incorrect storage of fuel
  • Inward swing of exit door
  • Overcrowding
  • Exit door swings onto sidewalk
  • Exits locked from inside and do not have panic bar
  • Exits in need of repair
  • Exits blocked
  • No entry to building
  • No entry to basement

Toronto

Toronto fire inspectors will set up appointments to inspect your restaurant, but be aware that random inspections will happen if they need to follow up on a complaint or when they are conducting “blitzes”.

The City of Toronto, Safety & Fire Prevention recommends providing training so that each your employees knows:

  • the location of two exits closest to their work area
  • the location of the nearest fire alarm pull station and how to use it
  • the phone number for the Fire Department (Toronto – 9-1-1)
  • your responsibilities in a fire, which are in the fire safety plan
  • the fire emergency procedures posted on your floor
  • If you work in a high building, visit the Fire Safety in High Buildings page for more information

You are responsible for:

  • preparing and implementing the Fire Safety Plan
  • informing employees of the Fire Safety Plan
  • posting fire emergency procedures on each floor
  • conducting regular fire drills with all employees

Conclusion

Building codes and restaurant inspections are not where you want to cut corners when you’re starting your business. While the documentation and sometimes legalese can be overwhelming to navigate, knowing the language also means knowing your rights as a business owner.

While you can certainly rely on your construction team and architect to make sure your compliant, remember that knowledge is power – especially if you’re ever in the position of defending your business against a violation. So pour yourself a drink and start studying!