Can a Bad Valet Ruin a Restaurant Experience?

Whether it be good or bad, does the experience with a restaurant valet belong as part of a review?

That was a question Houston Press Editor-in-chief Margaret Downing and I struggled with after my visits to KUU. In January 2010, former restaurant critic Robb Walsh decided that it did upon going to the now-closed Branchwater Tavern and finding every single space in the parking lot coned off. His answer was to run over one of the cones and go inside anyway, despite the protests of the valet. His response: "Call a tow truck, I'm going in the restaurant."

In this case, though, to adequately describe what happened at KUU would have taken up a lot of precious copy space--words that were better put to use in describing the food. Ultimately, we opted to document the incidents as a supplementary blog post rather than as part of the review itself.

A dining experience begins the moment a person arrives. For those of us who drive (in other words, most Houstonians), that includes finding a parking space or turning your car over to the valet. For the review visits at KUU, my guests and I opted for the valet.

Valet services can be annoying, but the one serving Gateway Memorial City initially could have been cited as an incentive. Ace Parking is contracted to provide the service and its system to retrieve your car is incredibly convenient. Each claim check has a unique number. All you have to do is text it to the telephone number on the ticket and the valet will have your car waiting for you. You can even pay for the service online, which is really handy if you are one of those types (like me) who lives on plastic and hardly ever carries cash.

Then, one person's inappropriate behavior put a pall over an otherwise decent experience. After the first dinner, I requested my car. Once outside, my male companion realized he had left his jacket inside the restaurant. He walked back to retrieve it and as soon as he was out of hearing distance, the valet asked, "Are you a natural redhead?"

I initially laughed off the question, but afterwards, I thought about it and realized the insinuation. It's one small step away from asking if the carpet matches the drapes. Does he ask women with smooth faces if they've had Botox? Does he ask women with large breasts if they've had a little work done? It was an inappropriate question and none of his business.

I went back the following night to see if that was a typical interaction between this valet and women. This time, I met an attractive (but also tough, feisty and no-nonsense) female friend there. We arrived in separate cars. She got one valet; I ended up with the same one from the prior night. Both men asked for our names to write on our valet tickets. Hers even asked for her phone number, which was weird. Neither my friend nor I can recall a time when a valet has required our names, much less phone numbers. Why was that needed?

When the valet brought my car, there were no comments. However, once inside my vehicle, I realized a piece of paper was on the passenger seat--a flyer for a massage service. My friend was still waiting for her vehicle and I called her over to show it to her. At that moment, the valet rushed over to say, "I put that in your seat. I hope that's okay."

No, dude, it's not okay. Don't put anything in my car that's not related to parking it. It's my private property. Also, is your boss aware that you're marketing your own business on the side?

My friend did not find a flyer in her car. I felt singled out and creeped out. I wondered if KUU had already lost some female customers thanks to this valet's behavior.

I got in touch with Ricky Cheung, the director of operations at KUU, who seems to have taken my comments very seriously. I emailed him a scan of the flyer I found in my car as well. He contacted the landlord and even called me with an update, saying, 'This is unacceptable for our area and for our customers." He noted that the same valet also serves the Churrascos located in the same shopping center.

It seems that, far too often, restaurants have little control over the valet service. It's an issue that needs to be seriously considered by valet companies and restaurant management alike. It only takes one person to put a dark cloud over an otherwise good experience.

Have you ever had issues like this with a restaurant valet? Did it color your experience or dissuade you from visiting the restaurant again? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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