In 2019, more than 3.2 million immigrant entrepreneurs called the U.S. home, and millions of other Americans work for these immigrant-owned businesses.
Many immigrants dream of opening their own business but may not be certain where to start. If you’re one of them, the best place to begin is to decide what type of business to open.
Depending on the type of business you wish to open, you may need to obtain business permits to legally operate in your area. You can contact your state’s Department of State or Department of Commerce for specific information about permitting requirements, costs, and applications.
Keep reading for common business ideas that are easy to open and have low overhead costs, even if they require permitting.
Food business ideas
Food-based businesses are popular among immigrants. In fact, more than 35% of small restaurant owners in the U.S. are immigrants. Your food-service business can allow diners to savor the authentic flavors of your cuisine or enjoy all-American favorites like hamburgers or pizza.
Immigrant and small business owner, Jatin M., told Remitly “I started a business with my uncle in early 2020. It was my uncle’s idea. My uncle was Living in Canada for about 10 years. He worked in a pizza store for about 5 years before we started our own pizza store.
My uncle knew all the operations of a pizza store because he worked in all the departments before. He knew what pizza most people like and what does not sell. My uncle asked me to open up a pizza store in partnership with him in early 2019. I agreed to get 20 percent of the business stake because I knew that my uncle had experience in the industry and he could make a good profit. We decided to rent a commercial space to start the store. Because we wanted to start safe and start with the least investment. We found a place in a few months.”
Below are several types of food-based businesses you can consider.
Restaurants sell meals, snacks, and beverages to the public.
There are several types of restaurants you can open:
- Fine dining restaurants serve multi-course meals in dining rooms that have upscale decor and a serving staff
- Casual dining restaurants serve simpler meals in a casual setting with diners seated at tables
- Fast casual restaurants serve simple meals that customers purchase at a counter. They can then sit in a dining room or take their orders to go.
- Fast food restaurants (QSR) serve inexpensive food quickly with counter service and drive-throughs. Some fast food restaurants have dining areas.
- Ghost kitchens have no option for dining in and accept only online orders for delivery and/or takeout
With franchise restaurants, you pay a fee and gain rights to open a business under an established name. You’re the owner of the business, but you usually need to follow rules about decor and the kind of food you serve. Many franchise providers require you to buy food directly from them. They may offer marketing support, training, and other benefits.
Immigrant business owners may prefer franchises to independent restaurants because the concepts are already tested. As a result, there may be less risk involved. However, startup costs are generally higher due to the franchise fees.
A food truck is a small takeout restaurant on wheels. Some food truck owners lease spaces and sell their food in set locations, while others travel all over to different farmers markets or food truck venues. Food trucks generally need fewer employees than traditional restaurants.
Coffee shops serve specialty beverages like espresso, cappuccino, and tea. They may also sell pastries, sandwiches, salads, and other breakfast or lunch foods. These types of foods generally cost less to buy and make than dinner meals.
Most coffee shops are counter-service restaurants with dining areas. Customers may choose to remain at tables for hours to work on the computer or meet with people.
A street stand is a food-service business that operates out of a mobile cart or permanent stand rather than a truck. Street stands can typically operate with only one or two employees. Stands usually have limited menus and serve food quickly.
Farmers market stands
Farmers markets are temporary open-air markets where people sell produce, baked goods, and other foods. Some farmers markets also have food stands and food trucks onsite.
Usually, the cost to rent a space at a farmers market is lower than the fees associated with street stands or food trucks stationed along public streets.
Food service permits
Most food service businesses require permits. State and local health departments make business owners obtain them to ensure that employees handle food safely to protect customers from illnesses.
There are many types of food service permits, including the ones listed below.
Food handler’s permit
A food handler’s permit relates to the safe preparation and handling of food. Normally, you need to undergo a training course to obtain one.
If you personally prepare and serve food, you’ll likely need to get one from your state or local government. Typically, every employee who works for a food-service business and who handles food as a part of their job must also get one.
State governments control which restaurants can serve liquor to make sure that businesses comply with all laws regarding liquor sales. To serve beer, wine, or hard alcohol in your restaurant, you usually need a liquor license.
In many states, liquor licenses are expensive. In 2018, a liquor license in California cost $13,800. However, a liquor license in Idaho was only $100. The average liquor license cost was $1,406. Many states only issue a limited amount of licenses and have waitlists, as well. In these cases, you may have to buy a liquor license from an existing business.
Food service businesses that receive state or local permits or licenses are usually subject to inspections. Often, these are surprise inspections where a government inspector shows up at a time you don’t expect.
Inspectors look to see if you’re following health and safety codes. If you’re not, you may be fined, forced to temporarily close, or lose your license or permit. As a result, you’ll need to stay up-to-date on changes to state and local codes and regulations that apply to your business.
Service business ideas
Service-based businesses are great for immigrants in the U.S. because they usually don’t involve inventory and may have low startup costs. The following are just a few popular service-based businesses you can choose from.
A handyman performs small chores to keep homes and businesses maintained. If you’re a DIY enthusiast, a handyman business will allow you to put your construction, plumbing, electrician, or painting skills to use and work with your hands.
A fitness trainer helps people achieve their fitness goals. They develop customized fitness plans that include aerobic and strength exercises and then motivate their clients to complete them.
Dog groomers trim dogs’ coats and nails to keep them looking their best. Some dog groomers work from locations in strip malls or standalone buildings. Others provide grooming services outside of clients’ homes in specially designed vans.
You typically don’t need a physical location to start a house cleaning business because most of the work happens at other people’s houses. All you need is cleaning supplies, a vehicle, and a couple employees in case you get a lot of clients.
Certain service businesses must also obtain permits to legally operate. Whether or not you’ll need one depends on your line of business and the laws in your area. Businesses that involve transportation, for instance, frequently need one or more permits.
Animal and plant transport permits
The U.S. Department of Agriculture issues permits for importing, transporting, or selling certain:
- Live animals
- Animal products
- Veterinary medications
- Plant products
- Soil types
If you have a landscaping business, flower shop, pet store, dog grooming business, or other company that deals in one of the above, you may need to apply for one of these permits. State and local governments may require additional permits.
If you’ll be operating a motor vehicle as a part of your service business, you’ll need to have a driver’s license. Individual states are responsible for issuing driver’s licenses.
Although laws regarding licenses vary, there are a few main kinds:
- Non-commercial driver’s licenses allow you to transport yourself and passengers in vehicles that weigh less than 26,000 pounds. Cars, trucks, SUVs, and vans typically fall under this category.
- Commercial Class C driver’s licenses allow you to drive commercial vehicles that weigh less than 26,000 pounds, such as passenger vans or small vehicles that haul hazardous materials.
- Commercial Class B driver’s licenses let you drive heavier vehicles like box trucks, large buses, straight trucks, and dump trucks
- Commercial Class A driver’s licenses allow you to drive heavy commercial vehicles like tractor trailers
You may also need to obtain special endorsements for your driver’s licenses. For example, endorsement P lets you transport passengers.
Business ideas you can do from home
A home-based business is one you can do right from your own home. If your home doubles as your place of business, you may need to obtain permits from your state or local government.
Some home-based business opportunities you can consider are below.
A freelancer is an individual who provides creative services on a computer to multiple clients. Writers, graphic designers, photographers, and personal assistants are all examples of freelancers.
Not all freelancers work full-time in their fields. Some use freelancing as side hustles to supplement their income or support another business.
Seamstress or tailor
If you’re good at using a sewing machine, you could start a home-based business as a seamstress or tailor. Seamstresses and tailors repair clothing and make alterations to garments for clients. Some people also custom design dresses, suits, and other apparel.
A catering business can be run right out of your home kitchen where you can cook your favorite recipes and food. Then, you can bring that food to businesses or events when people order it.
You can’t just make food in your home and sell it though. Often, catering permits are necessary for this type of business. However, some states, like California, offer special permits for individuals who sell food from their kitchens in small quantities.
Child care or pet care
If you have a larger home or a big yard that you could use to entertain children or pets, you can start your own daycare business for pets or kids. If you’re running a daycare for children, you’ll need to obtain special permits and licensing.
Each state defines home-based daycare businesses in different ways, including the number of children at the daycare. If you’re caring for more than a set number of children who aren’t related to you, you will need to obtain a home daycare permit. Home-based daycare businesses must comply with state childcare laws and are subject to inspections.
Bringing your business idea to life
If one of the business ideas above has inspired you, you may be ready to get on the path to opening your small business. Check out our guide on how to start a business if you’re a U.S. immigrant for next steps.
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