The Houston Valet Conundrum
There are a lot of things Houstonians hate. Humidity. Bad barbecue. The city of Dallas.
Photo by Mike Turnauckas
But there are few more contentious topics in the Bayou City than valet parking.
When I first moved here, the whole valet situation was confusing to me. We're not New York City. We do have parking spaces here. Why do I need to pay a guy to park my car when the valet stand is further from the door than the closest parking space? I was mystified.
I took to Twitter and posted what I thought was a harmless tweet:
Turns out, I wasn't the only person confused about valet, and it was far from a new topic of discussion (and wrath) in Houston. Tweets poured in about the worst restaurants that make you valet, the incompetence of valet drivers and the absolute injustice of it all. "We're Texans," seemed to be the consensus. "Ain't nobody gonna make us do nothin'." Except, it seems, pay someone else to park our cars.
I started somewhat of a mission to figure out why valet is so popular, aside from the obvious: not enough parking spaces. It seemed to me that plenty of restaurants had the proper amount of parking spaces for their guests, but they still chose to use valet. Everyone who I talked to agreed and added his or her own anecdote about the time when some great injustice happened as a result of being forced to valet.
Photo by Paul Sableman The sign might as well read "DON'T FUCKING PARK HERE."
I heard stories of iPods being stolen, cars being scratched and money being unnecessarily spent. On Twitter, people told me about a valet driver screwing up a car because he didn't know how to drive a standard. The valet's insurance continues to give the driver the runaround. Recently, a valet driver for Corner Table restaurant made a right turn from a left lane and struck and killed a motorcyclist, igniting the debate anew. Readers claimed that some valet drivers are barely old enough to have a license, while others pointed fingers at certain ethnic groups who make up the majority of valet drivers in Houston. It's a sad story that shouldn't have turned into a discussion about valet, but it has.
Because I'd already heard so much from the public's perspective, I sought out explanations from local restaurateurs to find out the reasoning behind having valet.
My first call was to Ray Salti, the owner of Sorrel Urban Bistro and Ray's Grill, because Sorrel was the first place I encountered where the valet stand was further from the door than some of the parking spaces. I called Salti to ask him what the heck was up with that, but after hearing him out, I began to change my tune.
"We don't have valet on a regular basis," he explained, "but once we look in the computer the day before and see how many reservations there are, we call the valet guy. The reason is we have 62 spots. And when we see 180 people coming in between 11 and one...we don't want the older crowd to go park across the street and have a hard time coming in. It's based on demand."
OK, I thought. That makes sense. Perhaps there were empty spaces because I arrived early that day, but the staff anticipated that the lot would fill up soon. Restaurants who have only a certain number of assigned spaces in a specific lot use valet to fit more cars in one space than would be possible if we all parked our own cars. Valet drivers can double stack and triple stack cars, then work as a team to retrieve a vehicle once it's needed again. It would be less acceptable for a diner to interrupt someone else's meal to move a car.
Salti did admit that, like many restauranteurs, he hates valet.
"Valet is the worst thing for me," he says. "I hate it. If you're not busy, it complicates things. But we just want to give you an extra service. We started it when we first opened, but we stopped. One person who doesn't like it is enough for me."
Even though people are complaining again (or maybe they never really stopped) Salti doesn't intend to stop using valet on days when he anticipates being busy. He also likes the added security that having valet drivers watching cars provides.
I heard a similar story from Marco Wiles of Da Marco, Dolce Vita and Vinoteca Poscol. He insists that the parking situation (or lack thereof) in the neighborhood where Da Marco is located necessitates the use of valet.
"If we don't have valet we fit 10 cars, but with valet, we can fit 20 cars," Wiles says. "It's complimentary. We have a police officer there. Some people park in front of Avalon and get towed, then it's a $20 cab ride plus $220 bucks. Give the guys a couple of bucks."
The increased security coupled with free-but-not-really-cause-you-have-to-tip parking does sound like a good deal, but many Houstonians flat out don't want strangers driving their cars, no matter the perks.
Scott Sulma, general manager of Tony's, told me that they don't have much of an option but to hire valet services for the restaurant because they literally don't have a lot.
"We have the third story of the parking garage next door," he explains. "We can't ask our guests -- especially the older ones -- to walk all that way."