How To Navigate The Licensing Minefield

How many times have you seen it happen in Hong Kong: a restaurant opening without a licence, particularly a liquor licence? It can be an expensive problem – but it’s a largely avoidable one, if you approach the business of acquiring your licences right: by working with your landlord.

First of all, remember that all civil servants in Hong Kong are overworked. Issuing a licence, whether a liquor licence or one of the four types of food licences, is complicated and time-consuming, as is the smallest alteration to one, usually taking months and involving a mountain of paperwork – often literal paperwork, as a lot of government departments still use inefficient paper-based systems. Everything will take a lot longer than you think, and the whole process can very quickly turn into a nightmare.

And just because you are issued that liquor licence, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can run a business with it. Often licences are subject to many provisions, restrictions and provisos that it’s difficult to operate profitably; they often come with restricted hours, for example, or prevent you from keeping your doors open after certain hours. And the tighter the restrictions on your licence, the more regularly the police will come and inspect your premises to check for any infractions.

Moreover, the Liquor Licensing Board are getting stricter in the restrictions they impose on licensed premises, and their decisions can often feel pretty arbitrary. Your very best option, therefore, is to find a place with a liquor licence that has already been issued and get it transferred to you – particularly if it’s a 24-hour one, which are now few and far between. The licensing board’s biggest bugbear is noise, so the next option is to find premises in an area that isn’t heavily residential, or ideally completely commercial; there’s a reason shopping malls are such a popular option for F&B outlets in Hong Kong.

With restaurant licences, it’s vital to make sure there are illegal structures or other alterations the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department could object to. I’ve heard of cases where a restaurant opening has been delayed because the operator shifted an internal staircase during construction, meaning it no longer matched the plans and had to be moved back again. I’ve personally dealt with a restaurant where the FEHD and Buildings Department objected to an internal lift because it had been installed, decades ago, at an orientation 90 degrees different from that specified on the plans.

And while heritage buildings are always attractive options for F&B operators, bear in mind that they make whole business of government regulation even more complex. Converting a very old building so that it meets the current code requires common sense and flexibility – qualities that can sometimes be in short supply from certain government departments. How, for example, do you install a fire exit that the Fire Services Department insists on, when the Buildings Department expressly forbids you from altering the fabric of the building? As ever when dealing with licensing in Hong Kong requires patience, perseverance and a detailed knowledge of government thinking and procedure.

Ivan – 28/01/2018



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