PORTLAND, Maine — A car full of diners, with reservations to eat at one of Portland’s top restaurants, was about to give up and leave the city when they stumbled upon Carl Loomis standing in front of Sebastien’s, a six-week-old addition to the local scene.
“They said, ‘We’ve been driving around for 20 minutes and can’t find a place to park — can we leave the car with you?’,” Loomis recalled Thursday.
Loomis, founder of the city’s first valet service, was happy to oblige. And Sebastien’s welcomed a car load of diners who didn’t have plans to eat there initially.
“Like everyone else, I thought, ‘This is Portland. You’re going to struggle to find parking and that’s just the way it is,’” Loomis said.
But when Tom and Shannon Bard — who came to Portland after living in places like California and Massachusetts, where valet service is a regular part of fine dining — opened Zapoteca about a year ago, they weren’t so resigned to defeat in the city’s often frustrating parking game.
Already friends with Loomis, the Bards mentioned their wish that a third-party valet service was available in the area, and Loomis jumped at the idea.
Soon, Tom Bard said, the valet service was one of Zapoteca’s major selling points. Displayed among Loomis’ promotional materials is a testimonial from a Windham woman who said she never ventured into Portland’s downtown to dine because she dreaded circling in search of a parking spot. But she started making date nights at Zapoteca because she knew she could avoid the hassle.
“In this town, it’s very difficult to park on a weekend night,” Bard told the Bangor Daily News Thursday. “Customers know they can make a reservation here, drop their car off and enjoy a meal.”
The price to park in Portland is increasing as well, with the City Council in May approving a budget that includes $160,000 in fee hikes at city-owned parking garages.
On July 1, hourly prices in the city’s two garages — on Elm Street and Spring Street — jumped from $1.25 to $1.75. The plan also included an increase in daily rates from $12 to $21, and added a $10 administrative fee on monthly parking space renters.
Loomis charges the restaurants a per-night fee, which varies depending on the needs of the restaurant and how many drivers he needs to station there, and provides the car parking free to the restaurant customers.
Loomis now has four employees — with plans to hire two more soon — and leases 100 spots in a private lot. In addition to the three restaurants he currently valets for, Loomis said he is in talks with two others and believes he’ll have a clientele of at least five eateries by the end of the summer.
His team includes a roving car that quickly ushers on-site drivers back and forth to the Valet4ME private lot to ensure customers can get their vehicles quickly when they’re ready to leave.
Loomis said his group parks between 25 and 35 cars each night in the city, and he hopes the addition of more restaurants will increase those numbers still. He said that while out-of-state tourists are used to the routine, valet service is still somewhat foreign to Maine diners. Although that’s changing, he said.
“In the old Frank Sinatra movies, he’d throw the keys to the valet and stroll into the restaurant,” Loomis said. “It’s starting to get that way here, too. People expect to see us.”
And Loomis teaches his valet workers to actively promote the restaurants they’re working for. The Valet4ME greeters tell passers-by — on foot or in cars — about the specials and wait times to help sell the cuisine and loosen up lobby logjams for hosts and hostesses.
“On slower nights, Carl and his team will actually bring people into the restaurant,” Tom Bard said.
“Carl and his crew go above and beyond what we were told they would do,” wrote Brad Kowalski and John Weber, president and vice president, respectively, at Sebastien’s, in a letter testimonial endorsing the service. “They have learned our menu so they can give detailed descriptions of what we offer, they explain that we have two distinct dining rooms and steer customers to the area that is best suited for their dining experience.”
Loomis said he believes his valet service, both by adding convenience and by actively promoting the restaurants streetside, creates more revenue for the venues than it costs.
“Restaurants don’t realize how much money walks past their windows,” he said.
“This is a service that is very much needed in our city with parking at a premium and limited at best,” Kowalski and Weber continued. “It would be devastating to our business to not have this service available to us.”