No Parking? Nashville’s Valet Companies Spy Opportunity As Business Booms

Tyler Ross is a musician who parks cars in his spare time – and for spare change. Shaved head, standard-issue polo shirt, khakis and Ray Bays to shield the beating sun, he looks like the quintessential valet guy. Having been in the game for about a year, slick rides barely faze him.

“It’s always funny because people are like, ‘you park Mercedes and BMWs?’ And I’m like ‘yeah, I park a hundred of those, they’re not nice any more, ya know? I park Aston Martins and Bentleys and stuff,’” said Ross, who personally drives a Toyota Matrix.

Ross is among hundreds of part-time valet workers who have found employment in the city’s valet boom. In 12South, where Ross mostly works, and other trendy neighborhoods in the city, searching for a spot feels like a treasure hunt, and that spells big opportunity for purveyors of parking assistance.

According to city records, there were a little more than a dozen valet locations in 2011. That number is on track to triple by year’s end.

Tyler Ross helps a customer outside the restaurant Josephine in 12 South. Credit: Leah Johnson

Tyler Ross helps a customer outside the restaurant Josephine in 12 South. Credit: Leah Johnson

Public Parking Demand

When David Purcell was planning the development of the restaurant Pour House on 8th Avenue, parking availability wasn’t foremost on his mind. But that quickly changed.

“You look at your lot, and you go, ‘OK, I have plenty of parking,’ until you actually open and look at the space you’re trying to fill,” Purcell said. Other restaurant owners echoed it: public parking is getting harder and harder to find while, for many business owners, the prospect of purchasing a separate lot just for parking is not manageable. As a result, Purcell pays a valet company to take care of it.

“If you own a parking lot, it’s a license to print money,” Purcell said. “Had to do it all over again, I’d probably be in a different business.”

Fred Kane, a land broker with Cassidy Turley, said he hears from restaurant owners all the time who would like to buy a piece of land for parking, but it’s rarely available. When it is, the price is astronomical — a reflection of steadily rising land values all around Nashville’s hip neighborhoods. He recalls selling a piece of land near the Gulch to some investor clients.

“I go, ‘guys, this is the last $20-a-foot dirt in Nashville,’” Kane said. “Now the stuff around there is $90 to a $100.”

Business owners, developers and residents agree: the parking problem is only going to get worse. As more lots used for parking are sold off for development, pressure is put on all the existing ones. For example, When the Music City Center was built, it removed some 1,000 parking spots from the downtown area. The project now holds around 1,800 parking spaces, but not every development project yields a parking spot net gain — in fact, most don’t.

Kane said big returns on investment don’t come from stand-alone parking garages, so for developers, it’s not an easy sell. It’s more palatable for an investor when the project is at least partially publicly-financed. Even with some public support, though, lenders consider a parking garage a risky bet.

“Nobody is going to lend them the money to build the $15 million, $20 million parking deck, until the demand is there,” Kane said, adding that what drivers perceive as high demand and what banks perceive as high demand are vastly different.

Right now valets have a big advantage.

Here’s How It Works

When a restaurant applies for a permit from the city, the owners have to show how they’re going to supply parking. In downtown, business owners aren’t required to provide parking. But most everywhere else, the city generally requires 1 parking space per 1,000 square feet of floor space. That’s not much. If Pinewood Social, one of the largest restaurants in the city, opened in 12South, they’d be required to provide just 13 spots.

Fred Kane said what many restaurants are doing is outsourcing all parking obligations to valet companies. When a business applies for a permit, an owner shows city officials a contract stating that the valet company will handle parking.

And when restaurants offload parking to valet companies, parking lot owners get a payday, since they’re leasing space. Then Tyler Ross gets a call a to work. The valet boom is great for him, but in the end, it’s very much a service industry job.

“The famous crumble up the one dollar bill so it looks like you’re giving more but it’s really one dollar — yeah, that happens all the time,” Ross said.

His wage is like a restaurant server’s, based on tips. He said three bucks is the average. “Two sometimes, like, nothing wrong with two.”

Catching his breath after parking a car in a lot about a block away, he said the inside of a person’s car is a telling portal into their personality.

“Some people are kind of embarrassed about the inside of their car,” he said. “But I try not to pay attention to it, because I’ve seen it all.”

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