Baby, You Can't Drive My Car

Of valets and violations

The instant message I received from a friend was extremely alarming. "I felt so violated," it read. Yikes, I thought. Had she been sexually assaulted?

No, as it turned out. But her glove compartment had been raped -- by a valet who didn't even have the decency to close it after he finished pawing through the contents.

It's becoming an old story: Pull up to a South Beach restaurant, turn your car over to the valet, eat dinner, return to the valet station to await your car, get in and drive home, and ... discover you've been robbed. Mostly the stuff taken is petty -- loose change, cigarettes -- but occasionally, missing items like cell-phone jacks and compact discs prove to be both costly and problematic to replace.

I've made no secret of the fact that riding the South Beach valets to quit their stealing is becoming my favorite mission. My husband had gasoline credit cards stolen from his car when he valet parked at Astor Place last December, and a week or so later I was deprived of about 30 compact discs somewhere else. The sad fact is, those employees doing the thieving aren't scared of me or any other consumer out there. Sure, if they get caught they might get fired. But they won't get arrested, because the cops have better things to do -- like confiscating Smirnoff Ice bottles from underage teenagers on the beach. And since most valets work solely for tips or are paid meager salaries off the books, there's no record of their employment. So they'll simply go to another company, and with a clean record.

Which means that it's up to us -- as usual -- to protect ourselves. Easier said, I know. But it might help if we were better informed about how the valet system works, which includes understanding why prices are so high and just what happens to your car once it's out of your sight.

According to my sources, valet companies have several options. They can buy real estate, turn the land into parking lots, which, according to Miami Beach city ordinances, must be paved, and then contract with restaurants for their patrons' vehicles. (All restaurateurs have to do is give the valet company a signed letter of intent to allow it to practice its service.) Of course the competition for customers is keen, so some companies like Quik Park, rumored to be quickly emerging as the godfather of valet parking, have been reported to actually pay the restaurants one dollar per car that they receive. They then turn around and charge the customer fees that have no regulation. The upshot is that the restaurateur makes money from the kickback, the valet company makes money from the fee, and the valets themselves make money from our tips. And we pay and pay and pay.

Not all companies have the resources to purchase land on South Beach, however. Those that don't, like AAA Parking, which handles restaurants like Tantra and hotels like the Eden Roc, rent metered spaces from the city. Manager Omar Frias tells me that the metered spaces on South Beach, mostly in lots along Alton Road, cost him $14 per car. Then there's the runner vehicle they hire to ferry valets back and forth to the cars, a standard practice among the more ethical companies (less ethical ones use customer cars, particularly rental cars that have seen better transmissions). At this point it's easy to see why valet fees are as high as $25 on the Beach: The city is screwing the valet companies, so they're sticking it to us. I should note, though, that Frias and AAA Parking charge fifteen dollars for the privilege of valet parking at Tantra. Still, while the profit margin is reasonably small, the consumer isn't likely to know this, Frias admits, and he often hears comments like "Hey, this ain't New York."

Finally the valet companies can also lease the spots from the restaurants themselves. For instance Breez in Billboard Live has an underground parking lot with about 200 spots. (Restaurants are required to have a certain number of parking places dependent on the size of the eatery. Those that can't build or don't have their own parking lots must contract a valet company for the allocated spots.) Ephraim Kadish, vice president of culinary affairs, and his partners have leased those spaces to Quik Park, which in turn charges the customer.

Unlike other restaurateurs, Kadish would not allow Quik Park free rein. "They wanted to keep the prices high because they set the example for the rest of the Beach," Kadish notes. "But we wanted to pass some savings on to the guests." As a result of some tense -- and intense -- contract negotiations, Quik Park valets will likely charge about six bucks for lunch and eight bucks for dinner, which is practically cheap by South Beach standards. (The contract had not yet been signed by press time.) But Kadish admits the service they provide is unsatisfactory: valets who don't speak English or who are rude, not well-groomed, or quite simply not good drivers. "The whole purpose of their service is to be hospitable, and they're not," he claims. He also knows the frustration of being robbed personally, since his car phone apparatus was stolen recently by a valet.

Thus far, standard operating procedures would seem to indicate that the patron pays through the nose while the restaurateurs in general get by with finances intact. But since valet fees do tend to reflect on a restaurant -- and whether a customer will return to eat there -- some, like Chrysanthemum when it was on South Beach, subsidize the valet companies' fees. In the end the valet situation, which cost the restaurant about $10,000 per month, was one of the primary reasons Chrysanthemum relocated to Coconut Grove.

Obviously we have little control over how much we are being charged to valet our cars. But we can help to minimize the theft of our belongings. Frias suggests we never leave money in the car. "Some people leave money as a test for us," he acknowledges. "But you really shouldn't leave cash. If I see it I ask the customer to take it with him. And never leave your luggage. Our lots are supervised but not all of them are."

If we are going to leave something of value in our cars, Frias says, we should simply tell the valet. "The best rule is to tell the person this is what I'm leaving in my car -- then show them the phone, show them the jacket. We write it on the back of the ticket; then when you get back you check your car. Once you leave, the valet company is no longer liable for anything.

"People will often tell me: “I have a gun under the seat, please don't touch it.' At that point I prefer them to show it to me, so if it comes up missing later I have some knowledge of it. Otherwise it's their word against mine."

And no, it's not unusual for folks to leave weapons in their cars. One former valet who didn't want to be named told me he once reached for what he thought was a hand brake and came up with a loaded Glock in his fist. And it works both ways. Frias mentions a recent incident where a Tantra customer claimed the valet had scratched the door. Frias wrote out an incident report so the patron's insurance company could contact AAA Parking's insurance company for compensation. But the patron returned later that evening to apologize. "He told me that the scratch had already been there. But his friends had made him accuse us because it was a rental car and they wanted insurance to pay for it," Frias explains.

Of course job stress in no way excuses the valets who are stealing. And there isn't any reason why valets should be making bets among themselves, as one chef told me often happens, when they spy a woman in a skirt exiting an SUV. "They'll bet to see if she's got any underwear on," he says. Which means, I guess, that not only am I going to have to start keeping my car clean and my compact discs at home, but damn, I'm also going to have to start wearing panties.

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