May 28, 2008

For Here or To Go: California's Sales Tax for Food Products Demystified

You should always get your food "to go" in California.

I found out back in undergrad that if you order a "cold" sandwich at Subway, you didn't have to pay sales tax. The owner of said Subway posted a flyer next to the cash register stating that all cold (non-heated) sandwiches would be sold "to go" unless otherwise requested and explained that no sales tax would be assessed on those sandwiches. I figured that to mean that as long as a sandwich was not "cooked" at the store and the order was not made to be eaten on the premise, there would be no sales tax. In that sense, the effect would be the same as if you bought a sandwich from a supermarket pre-wrapped.

Of course all this was inferred on my part from that one flyer and not from any substantive source. So I looked it up to shed some light on the subject, just in case you have ever wondered why your local Starbucks or 7-Eleven asks whether you want your coffee "for here" or "to go."

The gist of it is: no sales tax is charged on hot beverages, hot bakery goods, and cold prepared foods if ordered "to go."

In general, tax is charged on the following:
  1. Sales of hot prepared food products EXCEPT for coffee, hot tea, lattes, mochas, hot chocolate and hot bakery goods when sold "to go" and not as part of a combo.
  2. Sales of meals or hot prepared food products furnished by a restaurant, concessionaire, hotel, soda fountain or similar establishment. (I'm guessing a sandwich by itself is not considered a "meal." You can equate "meal" with "combo" as it applies to fast food.)
  3. Food sold for "dine in."
  4. Food sold through a "drive-thru."
  5. Food sales in any place you had to pay for admission i.e concerts, theaters, amusement parks, etc.
  6. "To go" food sales by a deli, bakery, cafeteria, restaurant, etc. when:

    A) more than 80 percent of the seller’s gross receipts are from the sale of food products,
    B) more than 80 percent of the seller’s retail sales of food products are taxable as provided in 1, 2, 3, or 4 above.

    BUT, the seller can elect not to charge/collect the tax on the exempted items if they account for them separately and document it (via receipts and whatnot).
Sales of carbonated beverages (such as soda or sparkling water) and alcoholic beverages are always taxable.

If you really want to read the state's official stance and a more exhaustive explanation, click on the following link:


  1. Intriguing post! I did not know about that before.

  2. Yeah, it's important to note that it's at the proprietor's election whether to collect the tax on excluded items if their store falls under the 80/80 rule though.

  3. huh? what? that is true, i bought a five dollar sub at subway today and there was no tax.

    anyway i passed by mcdonalds and saw a sign advertising their new sweet tea for only 1 dollar. will you try it out and let me know how it is?

  4. They don't have sweet tea at the McDonald's around here... at least not yet.

    You should try it take pictures and write a post for me!

  5. Today I went to Ann's kitchen and i ordered a cold avocado sandwich to go...and they charged me tax! Should I alert them to California's tax laws.

  6. They can charge you the tax if they want... they just don't have to. It's really up to the store owner to decide whether they want to collect the tax on those items.


  8. I looked up BOE reg 1603 and it looks like you got some of this backwards :0

  9. Sorry, I think I left out a sentence that made it a bit unclear.

  10. Wholefoods used to ask whether the item was "to go" , and if the answer was affirmative they did not charge zsales tax. Today thjey xgarge sales tax on all items.

  11. How about Sushi to go? tax or no tax

  12. I would say no tax on to-go sushi as it is "cold" unless the seller elects to collect tax on everything.

  13. i was just charged sales tax on a cold sandwich to go,in pleasant hill california.there should be no sales tax for that.i will take my business elsewhere.everyone looses.

  14. I tried 3 different Starbucks here in Santa Clara county and all charged me sales tax for "To Go" coffee...isn't it a scam? are they really reporting these taxes to California govt?

  15. You didn't order a "coffee". What Starbucks sells is fancy stuff with coffee inside, the law defines that as a meal item.


Thanks for commenting. If it helps any, you don't need to type a URL to leave a name.