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Valley Valets : For Patrons of Upscale Restaurants, Service Starts at the Curb

October 30, 1986|JOHN MILLRANY | Millrany is a Mission Hills free-lance writer

The couple drove up in their brand new Volvo to an elegant French restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, only to find after dinner that an someone had pitched a brick through the car's rear window.

So much for a fine dining experience.

At a Warner Center hotel, a man went to retrieve his car from the valet, only to learn that his car had been purloined by a well-known TV actor who, when realizing his blunder, dumped the car on the freeway and fled on foot.

In the first incident, the diners opted to park their car across the street from Lautrec's. For $1.50 (tip optional), a neatly attired attendant would have safely stationed the car at the restaurant's private off-street lot. Hence, no risk from random joy riders cruising the Ventura strip.

At the Marriott Hotel, it was a case of mistaken car I.D.

"The guy who took the wrong car was highly intoxicated and obviously shouldn't have been driving in the first place," notes Detective Carl Bishop of LAPD's West Valley Division who investigated the caper. (The stolen automobile was eventually restored to the rightful owner and the case turned over to attorneys for disposition.)

Important to Industry

Valet park or self-park? According to observers in the restaurant industry, valet parking is virtually indispensable for today's upscale epicures. And as Ventura Boulevard has rapidly turned into the Valley's restaurant row, red-jacketed valet parkers have become a common sight on the boulevard's sidewalks.

Although the number of eating and drinking establishments which serve alcoholic beverages in the City of Los Angeles has actually declined between 1983 and 1985--from 3,137 to 3,122--revenues are up considerably, reports Jeff Reynolds, chief of research and statistics for the State Board of Equalization. Revenue generated by Los Angeles restaurants and bars were $1.07 billion in 1983, $1.16 billion in 1984 and $1.20 billion in 1985.

"Given the fact that there hasn't been double-digit inflation recently, it appears that discretionary-income dollars are finding their way into Los Angeles' eating and drinking establishments," Reynolds said.

Valet Service Fills Need

But in many cases, lack of places to park causes major headaches for proprietors, customers and neighborhood residents of areas surrounding Ventura Boulevard. Enter valet parking companies.

Of course, long before Ventura Boulevard was fully surveyed and paved and visited with heavy commercial development, valet parking had been invented. The dictionary defines a valet as one who performs personal services for guests, services that predated the automobile.

Until the late 1970s, valet parking was essentially "gratis," with most patrons content to lay a buck in the hand of the attendant who skillfully jockeyed their car in and out of the establishment's parking quarters (be they on- or off-street).

Today's going rate at most popular Ventura strip eating and drinking establishments is $1.50. That's 50 cents more than the average about four years ago, according to Herb Citrin, founder-president of Valley Parking Service of Los Angeles, established in 1946.

Lawry's Was First

Citrin says his company pioneered the "service charge" after reaching agreement with his first client, Lawry's Prime Rib on La Cienega's Restaurant Row. The fee was set at $1 per car.

"There was resistance to doing this at first, because nobody wanted to be the first. But then (the fee) caught on, and today you'll find that most good restaurants consider parking their customers' cars an important part of doing business."

"Valet parking is, and should be, part of the overall dining experience," said Billy Kincheloe, owner of Stanley's, a trendy restaurant and watering hole in Sherman Oaks.

"The parking attendant represents Stanley's," Kincheloe says. "The first person the customer sees is the valet or the hostess.

"It is imperative that the valet have a positive attitude, is cordial, clean, properly dressed and presents no hassle to the customer."

Citrin agrees with Kincheloe, who contracts with Valet Parking Service, which also handles another Stanley's in Woodland Hills, Fireside Inn and Tony Roma's in Encino, Anna's and Cafe Cordiale in Sherman Oaks and Universal City's Fung Lum, Victoria Station and Womphopper's.

First Impression Important

"The average customer," says Citrin, "even though he's fairly sophisticated, if he thought about it would think (valet parking) was part of the restaurant.

"In effect, the parking attendant is your first and last kiss."

Valet Parking Service also handles parking for the Academy Awards, the Grammy and Emmy awards. For the Academy Awards alone, the valet service handles 1,200 limousines and cars, Citrin says.

He employs as many as 500 parking attendants in Southern California, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and Reno, and the company has sales exceeding $5 million annually.

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