The Houston Valet Conundrum

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There are a lot of things Houstonians hate. Humidity. Bad barbecue. The city of Dallas.

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.

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."

After I started to understand the need for valet in Houston, I began to defend it ever so slightly to people who complained.

"But don't you know about El Real?" they'd ask. El Real's owner Robb Walsh has a documented hatred of valet from when he was the restaurant critic here at the Houston Press, but as soon as he opened his own restaurant, a valet stand popped up out front. A few people jumped to Walsh's defense when his stance on valet was questioned.

"Not El Real's fault that city parking code forces them to use valet to satisfy parking requirements," one person wrote to me on Twitter. "A lot of places who 'shouldn't have to have' valet have no other option," wrote another.

I hadn't realized before that there could be some sort of city mandate that forces restaurants to hire valets. That, of course, would help explain its prevalence. I sat down with my computer and spent a long morning perusing municode, the city's online record of ordinances, for anything that explicitly states that valet is required under certain circumstances.

And I found nothing.

The city has a number of ordinances dealing with valet permitting, but nothing about a restaurant being compelled to hire a valet company for whatever reason. There are rules that valet companies have to comply with, but only if they pick up and drop off in an area that is a city right-of-way, as in the valet zone in front of Reef.

Feeling conquered by municode, I got in touch with the media liaison for the Parking Management Division (among other things), Chris Newport, and asked him to explain the city's involvement with valet parking in layman's terms. Here's what he told me:

"The city does not require anyone to have valet."

What the city does stipulate, it seems, is that a business must provide so many off-street parking spaces dependent upon the square-footage of the business. As the ordinances are amended, older businesses are grandfathered in and may not face as strict rules, but there is a ratio between square feet and parking spaces that must be met.

"But," Newport explains, "you are allowed to meet that ratio in a number of different ways. You get a credit, so to speak, if you provide valet because it lowers the number of spaces you need because valets can double stack and triple stack cars and get more vehicles in a valet lot. But you can also meet that requirement by having a garage or leasing a lot or buying a lot."

So when restaurateurs say that they have valet because they have no other choice, it's only half-true. Perhaps, due to financial reasons, they cannot afford to buy up a nearby space and turn it into a lot or pay a neighboring business to use its space. In this case, a restaurant would have to employ valet to meet the appropriate ratio between square footage and parking spaces. Is it mandated? Not exactly. Is it the only option? Pretty much.

Some restaurants have chosen to do what Fleming's does, which is provide parking spaces in the front for guests to park themselves, but also provide valet parking in a lot in the back. The valet drivers can only use the back lot, and diners can only use the front. If the front fills up, you have to valet, but it's nice to know the option exists.

I'm not sure why more restaurants don't give you the option of whether to valet or not. Perhaps they feel the option is inherent in the fact that most places have at least a few street parking spaces if you're willing to walk a bit.

Ian Rosenberg of Mongoose Versus Cobra and 13 Celsius is very involved in developing Midtown, and though he tries to provide as much free parking to his patrons as possible, he thinks its a shame that Houstonians are so averse to traveling by foot.

"Go to any great urban city, and you walk anywhere," Rosenberg says. "It's healthy for you. We're trying to create a pedestrian neighborhood, but we live in a city that is dominated by a car. There are definitely more things the city could do like create parking management districts."

For now, if you don't want to valet, parking and walking or taking the light rail or a bus are your best options. With Houston continuing to grow and the restaurant scene continuing to thrive, it's not likely that the number of valet stands in the city will decrease any time soon.

Taking to restaurateurs has helped me understand the valet problem a bit more clearly, but I do still think that maintaining that valet is a city requirement is a bit of a half-truth perpetuated by people in the business who can't or won't pay to secure more parking for customers.

Don't tell us the city is making you use valet. Tell us you can't afford another lot, and valet saves space. Being honest with us helps us understand where the problem really lies, which could, in turn, encourage us to do something about it.

But unfortunately, knowing the truth doesn't make us any less pissed that we had to pay a guy $5 to park three feet away. Some things never change.

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