Entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh face fewer local regulations than those in most of the other cities studied but must navigate a sometimes confusing compliance process. All businesses must undergo a pre-application meeting with the Zoning Department, which costs $50. Most other cities we studied do not require this kind of meeting, and instead small businesses know whether they can open by right; in those that do require the meeting, it often does not come with a fee.

Key Takeaways

In Pittsburgh, the cost, delays, and complexity imposed by the regulatory process for small businesses can sometimes make it challenging for entrepreneurs to start their ventures.


Fees can add up. For example, bookstores cost $2,105 to start. Most of this is driven by a $750 site plan review, a $550 Zoning Board of Adjustment Hearing fee, and a $450 commercial occupancy permit. And prospective restaurant owners face $1,700 in fees before they get to opening day. However, Pittsburgh provides a building permit calculator that uses the same formula across permit types based on the value of work performed, making calculating fees easy. 


OneStopPGH is a helpful resource for entrepreneurs to submit license and permit applications and make payments, meeting four out of five one-stop shop criteria. City websites provide a good overview of the requirements for each business type, but information is scattered throughout different webpages, making it sometimes difficult to find coherent information on the startup process.


Restaurants and barbershops each take 48 steps to start up. Neither of these business types has comprehensive step-by-step guides available on Pittsburgh’s website that walk entrepreneurs through the process of starting up, adding to the time it takes for entrepreneurs to navigate challenging regulatory requirements, in addition to rules specific to their model.

Starting a Business in Pittsburgh: By the Numbers

Total Cost
We calculated this metric by totaling the fees for all the licenses, permits, and registrations each business needs to get started.
Number of Fees
We calculated this metric by counting how many fees governments impose on each business for completing registrations and paperwork.
Agencies Involved
We calculated this metric by totaling the number of agencies entrepreneurs must work with in order to get up and running—whether in the form of submitting paperwork to an agency’s staff, or in terms of abiding by regulations that an agency has promulgated.
In-Person Activities
We calculated this metric by counting the number of compliance activities each entrepreneur needs to complete in person, rather than online or by mail.
Number of Forms
We calculated this metric by counting the various forms and applications each business needs to submit
Number of Steps
We calculated this metric by totaling the discrete tasks an entrepreneur must complete to start each of the business types.

Business Licensing


One-Stop Shop Score

  • Connecting city requirements with processes from other levels of government
  • Completing forms and registrations through the portal, not through each agency’s own website
  • Covering all city requirements, not just requirements for getting a business license
  • Providing a single log-in opportunity so entrepreneurs can organize information and track progress in one location
  • Guiding entrepreneurs effectively through the process

Pittsburgh Fast Facts

Notable Barriers and Roadblocks

Pittsburgh charges a $50 fee for a zoning meeting that most business owners must attend. Many other cities do not require a meeting and, if they do require it, the meeting often has no fee.

Food trucks may not operate within 100 feet of a brick-and-mortar business that sells similar products, restricting the areas where they can legally vend.

Accommodations for New or Small Businesses

No notable accommodations. 

Policy Recommendations

Officials and policymakers have the opportunity to make it cheaper, faster, and simpler to start a business in Pittsburgh. City officials should:

  • Eliminate the need for pre-application meetings with the Zoning Department and make usable online tools to determine if the use is by right, thus eliminating an in-person step. 
  • Create more robust step-by-step guides for common business types. There are guides currently, but only for select business types such as mobile food vendors and tow truck companies. 
  • Ensure all forms can be completed through OneStopPGH. 
  • Build the building permit fee calculator into OneStopPGH. 
  • Reduce the number of steps required to start a business.
  • Eliminate restrictions that are anti-competitive and target specific occupations, such as the food truck proximity restriction. 
  • Work with state officials to eliminate state barriers that may deter entrepreneurs from vulnerable communities from pursuing their passions, such as criminal background checks when applying for a Pennsylvania barber license.

featured entrepreneur

Tim Tobitsch

pittsburgh, pennsylvania

Tim Tobitsch

Tim Tobitsch is the owner of Franktuary, a food truck-turned-restaurant serving gourmet hot dogs and craft beer in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Inspired by the poor quality of hot dogs at his college dining hall, Tim saw an opportunity to elevate the simple food to a unique and quality culinary experience. The first Franktuary brick-and-mortar location opened in downtown Pittsburgh in 2004. Because the building was in a historic district, there were no blueprints on file with the city. This created problems and delays out of Tim’s control, such as not being able to secure a permanent occupancy permit for six months after opening. Tim also had to install expensive signage to comply with the zoning regulations of the historic district. Eventually, Tim closed the location and moved Franktuary to the Lawrenceville neighborhood. Getting his food truck operation off the ground was an even tougher battle for Tim. Pittsburgh officials wanted to charge him an annual fee for having his logo on the side of his truck because it constituted a “billboard.” The city also said he could not get his food truck permit because his food truck was wider than four feet—an arbitrary rule that was not clearly listed anywhere in city documents or resources. “There were so many obstacles that I ended up giving up on getting permitted in Pittsburgh. I stick to places where I’m invited to avoid the hassle.”