How To Start Your Business Downtown

This is the "officially, unofficial" quick guide on how to start a business in Downtown Plainfield. This guide has been assembled to aid those who make the courageous decision to start a business and for established businesses that wish to locate to Downtown Plainfield. This guide should not be looked upon as the final word, as that is the job of the city and its various departments, but as a common guide of proper sequence. Once you've read this guide and opened your business, take a look at our sign guidelines!

Step 1: Think of a Good Idea


The most important step to starting a business is to develop a great business idea. In most traditional American downtowns, most businesses are either restaurants, retail stores, offices or entertainment uses. Make your business stand out from the rest from its inception. Think of a business idea that people will turn their heads while driving by and say, "I wonder what that place is, let me pull over and check it out." Oftentimes, businesses don't survive in urban settings unless they differentiate themselves from the rest of the businesses on the street. While advertising is a good way to accomplish this goal, it can be seen as a tacked on solution. Think of the way you want your business to look. Think of a theme and overall aura that you want your business to portray on a passerby and ultimately a potential customer. Do some market research on the success rate of similar ideas and the demographics in the area.


Step 2: Register Business


Filing the proper federal and paperwork to start your business is the first step to setting your idea in motion. Most people wish to start a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) for its ability to block litigation against you as a private individual and limits liability to only your company. More information on this process can be found here.

As you can expect, it's generally good policy to abide by the rules of the IRS and State Treasury Department by filing the necessary paperwork to register your business and get a Tax ID Number. Without this basic paperwork, you cannot legally operate a business in New Jersey. Also, hair salons, barbershops, auto body shops, auto dealerships, and pet stores, among other uses, have special licensing requirements by the state that should be explored before going any further. For more information and to register your business online, visit the State of New Jersey's Business Portal.

Step 3: Visit City Hall


The next step is to visit City Hall (515 Watchung Avenue). Speak with the Zoning Officer about your desire to start a business. Tell him/her the type of business and any potential location you may be interested in. The Zoning Officer will verify that your business is located in a zone that permits the type of use, and give you an Application for Development, (a.k.a. zoning application) to fill out and return. The zoning application has several items that are required to be submitted as a part of the application. See step 6 for the full list. You can also download the zoning application here

This is also the time to visit the Economic Development Office in order to receive more information on the Sign and Facade Grant Program, the Urban Enterprise Zone, RBAC business loans and the Google "Get Your Business Online" promotion.

If you're a restaurant or an establishment that will be food or animal related, visit the Health Division at City Hall Annex across the street (510 Watchung Avenue). Find out the requirements placed upon your type of business, licensing, and inspection criteria. Auto dealership, auto body, establishments selling alcoholic beverages, and taxi, among other uses, require certification by the City Clerk so visiting their office is imperative for those seeking to open those types of establishments.

 Step 4: Choose a Location

The most exciting step! But this step is also the most important. The old saying is indeed true, "Location, location, location!". Choose a location that goes well with your business idea, gets good foot traffic (being on the first floor of an apartment building or buildings with high numbers of employment is ideal), near a public parking lot and near public transit stops for the best results. Make sure you do the necessary cost analysis to ensure the rent is affordable for what you realistically project to sell. Make sure the location is clean, tidy, does not have unwanted signs, wires hanging, or 100% solid security gates (see step 5). This will help you pass your zoning inspection. Do not sign a lease! Landlords will try to pressure you to sign a lease, but do NOT sign a lease until a zoning inspection is completed. For a list of available storefronts in Plainfield's new developments, click here.

Step 5: Visit Fire Division


The Fire Division, which is located just west of the downtown at 315 Central Avenue, requires that all businesses register with them in case of emergency. The Fire Registration Form can be found here. File the application with the Fire Division, and get a stamped and signed copy for the Zoning Officer. Keep the copy and proceed with Step 6.

Step 6: Apply for City Approval


Applying for approval from the city is pivotal to getting your business off the ground. Please understand that city staff are oftentimes understaffed and overworked, so use your time with them wisely, come prepared, and follow their directions! The city Inspections Division, Economic Development Office, Construction Office, Health Office, Clerk's Office, Planning Office and Zoning Office all work together to get your business opened as fast as possible. Also submit your Plan Review Application and all relevant documentation to the Health Division and your Sign and Facade Grant Application to the Economic Development Office to facilitate their review simultaneously with the zoning review. Plan accordingly and allow the city 10-20 days for all the departments to fully process your application. Once the potential location is selected, fill out and submit your zoning application and the following documents to the Zoning Officer:

  • $20 application fee - The city only accepts money orders, business checks, and cashier's checks as payment, so make sure you plan accordingly.

  • Copy of your Business Registration information and Tax ID.

  • Refuse/Recycling Contract- All businesses downtown are required to have a refuse/recycling contract from a garbage hauler. The city enacted this requirement in 2014 in order to enforce environmental regulations and curb illegal dumping. In many cases, your potential landlord will have a refuse and recycling contract. Ask the landlord for a copy of the contract or latest bill referencing the address of the storefront you are interested in. (Tip: In the event that your landlord is requiring a tenant to supply their own refuse dumpsters, you can submit a quote for service to the Zoning Officer in order to show intent on complying with this provision. The Zoning Officer will require a signed contract once you receive your approval).

  • Stamped and Signed Fire Registration Form.

  • If you are applying for a sign for your store, including window signs, you MUST give the Zoning Officer a copy of the dimensions/photo of the proposed signs. For the city's guidelines on signs, click here.


Step 7: Zoning Decision


The Zoning Officer will review your application for conformity to the city's code. He will do exterior inspections and ensure the property does not have existing zoning violations. The Zoning Officer emails all decisions, so make sure you look out for the email! If your business is approved, you can sign a lease with the landlord and proceed to Step 8.

In the event that site improvements are requested by the Zoning Officer, the improvements must be made prior to starting your business. This is not the time to bargain or argue with the Zoning Officer. Again, their time is extremely limited and conformance is the city's priority. 

Common improvements requested include the removal of old signs and concealing of wires on the building. It's important to understand that the Zoning Officer looks at the whole property when conducting an inspection and not just your storefront. Now you can decide to sign a lease with the landlord and have leverage in negotiating if your building needs improvements. Once all improvements are made, you can then sign a lease with your landlord and proceed to step 8!

If you applied for a sign, then the Zoning Officer should also inform you if it has been approved or denied. If you've been denied, then go back to your sign manufacturer and choose a sign that's permitted in the Downtown zones or make adjustments. Plainfield's Downtown sign regulations can be found here.


Step 8: Secondary Approvals


Next, you should secure your Certificate of Compliance for a Rental. A Certificate of Compliance is required for all businesses looking to rent a storefront. The city's Inspections Division will inspect the premises to ensure the space abides by the Plainfield Property Maintenance Code. The fee for a Certificate of Compliance is $300 per unit.

If you are operating a restaurant or any food related business, you should finish all required paperwork and recommendations by the Health Division. The Health Inspector will schedule an inspection of the property with you and approve your business to operate if it meets all requirements. For auto dealerships, body shops, taxi companies, or bars/liquor stores, the Clerk's Office will certify any required paperwork as long as all state and local statutes are being followed. Ensure you're operating with all the necessary licenses before opening. All other uses can skip this step.

If your business had any construction on the inside or is a change of use, you will also need to purchase a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) from the Building Division. The Technical Subcode Application is the formal Building Division application for a CO. The Zoning Officer will send your file to the Building Division to review, approve and issue the CO. A CO costs $300 per unit.

In certain more rare cases, the Zoning Officer can also request for businesses to go before the Planning or Zoning Board for approvals, which is a more lengthy process. This requirement would only come into play if your business is not permitted in the Downtown or is a change of use to a new use that has never been previously located at that property before.


Step 9: Visit Economic Development Office


The Economic Development Office administers the state's Urban Enterprise Zone, which has only 3.5% sales tax compared to 7% for businesses that are NOT in the zone. The entire Downtown is located in the Urban Enterprise Zone, so be sure to register your business to take advantage of the benefits. Finish all Sign and Facade paperwork that is required. Ask about the city's FREE Grand Opening and the Google "Get your Business online" campaign, which offers your business a free website for one year. Lastly, be sure to register to be a part of the Plainfield Special Improvement District and Plainfield Chamber of Commerce to find out about events and take advantage of all the great services they provide, including advertising!


Step 10: Insurance, Advertise, and Open!


The very last step is to get your business prepared for a final opening. The one thing you should do before your grand opening is apply for business insurance. There are many insurance companies in Plainfield, such as Farmers and AIA.

Quite possibly the most important step: Learn to advertise your business. Only put up signs that look attractive. Make the display windows look neat, clean, organized and showcase your best in order to lure customers to come inside your store. Shoppers hate cluttered windows, neon and LED lighting accents, and dirty windows and doors. You should think about ways to decorate the display for holidays, use your building's architectural details, and make the outside look appealing. Don't forget to clean the front windows and sweep the front of your store regularly so you'll always look your best. For more information on storefront design check out our Storefront Design page!