Hot Cars and Big Money
Stephen P. Karlisch

Hot Cars and Big Money

Sometimes Jeremy Parker slides behind the wheel of a Lamborghini Diablo. More often he drives a Mercedes. But in rare moments of juvenile flair he bops around in a bright yellow 1968 VW Bug.

Valet parking is ubiquitous in Dallas. According to David Hamilton, president of Jack Boles Parking Service, Dallas ranks with Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami among the most valet-parked cities in the country. They stand through summer heat and rare moments of rain, run occasional wind sprints, and wear outfits that in other settings would bring severe embarrassment. Other than that, it's not a bad job. So what is life like for Dallas-area valets?

Of course, there are the cars. "There's not a whole lot I haven't driven," says Parker, lead valet at a northwest Dallas steakhouse. His driving résumé includes the aforementioned Lamborghini, as well as Ferraris, Bentleys, and a McLaren. "I've even parked motor homes," he adds. "The only thing I haven't parked are motorcycles--but I do have a motorcycle license." The appropriately named Parker and his crew of five to seven valets park between 200 and 300 cars a night. The large services, on the other hand, employ crews numbering in the hundreds. On any one night, Jack Boles Parking Service has 125 valets scattered across the Dallas-Fort Worth area, from the Mansion to the Crescent to area country clubs. They park roughly 600,000 cars every year.

The job offers pay and prestige as well. A valet can earn anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, typically based on minimum wage plus tips, depending upon the restaurant and his or her customer service abilities. "Every place from the Mansion to the sleaziest strip joint has valet parking," Hamilton notes, "and the latter probably make more money." By comparison, starting teachers average $26,639, according to the American Federation of Teachers, and must battle bratty kids, brattier parents, and a slew of administrators. And prestige? "Valets give a level of protocol and prestige to a restaurant," Hamilton says. "Restaurants rely on them to make a first and last impression." Parker agrees: "Valets can make or break a restaurant." He and his crew actually receive training on etiquette and meet appearance standards set by the restaurant. "We are the patron's first contact. If they have a pleasant entrance, they will most likely have a good time."

But it's not just prestige and sports cars--otherwise everyone would want to park cars for a living. Some valets on Lower Greenville Avenue actually carry pepper spray for protection. "The worst problems are drunks, arguing spouses, and missing sets of keys," Hamilton says. Another common problem is the patron who refuses to part with his or her keys. For them, Hamilton suggests self-parking. "There's no shame in self-parking," he says. And for a good "spot" tip--a chunk of change doled out as you enter the parking area--most valets will open up a "hold" spot for self-parkers.

The tight labor market creates the biggest problems--not for valets but for their employers and customers. Hamilton uses a security firm to run background checks on potential employees, for example. But, Parker warns, "there are some valet companies you need to be scared of." Hamilton goes even further. "You'd be surprised how many [valets] don't have a license," he claims. He lists recent résumés from candidates with records of theft, with DUI, and those who refuse to divulge license and insurance information. "A lot of valets are underinsured or uninsured."

OK, so there's an underside to this otherwise glamorous--or, at least, necessary--industry. And like nursing, teaching, and politics, demand for good valets often exceeds supply. For restaurants concerned about image and professionalism, Hamilton points out, "there's a lot of combat for trained valets."

Think about that the next time you pull up to the valet stand.


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