As a valet driver, Kim Sung-jin, 54, follows two rules that he set for himself -- always smile at his customers and park their cars right.
“When you leave your key with me, you expect one thing and one thing only: that you don’t have to drive an extra hundred meters searching for a parking spot,” said Kim, who has worked 11 years for a local Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurant in Gangnam-gu, Seoul.
“Nothing gets on customers’ nerves more than inadequate spaces for parking,” Kim said. “People can drop off their car, not worrying about driving around to dine. And that’s important for all restaurants to keep their business going,” Kim added.
Kim Sung-jin, a 54-year-old valet driver, waits Thursday to return cars to customers at a restaurant in Seoul. (Bak Se-hwan/The Korea Herald)
On the crowded streets of Seoul, South Korea’s bustling capital city, valet parking is more of a necessity than a luxury, as finding a parking spot before going into a restaurant -- usually with insufficient space for multiple vehicles -- can be tough for customers.
“Parking is really a big issue here because everything is so crowded,” said valet driver Lim Jong-soo, 49, who works for one of the roadside beef restaurants lined up at a corner of an affluent neighborhood of Daechi-dong.
“I like the idea of helping customers enjoy their meal or have a relaxed night out. And in order to do so I remove the burden of parking for them as a valet,” Lim said.
Lim explains it is not just a parking service that they are offering; they also reduce traffic jams near the entrances of restaurants, improving traffic flow.
“Most of the traffic congestion here during lunch or dinner hours is caused by drivers looking for parking spaces as many roadside restaurants lack parking spaces ... (there are) 20 at best outside their dining spaces,” Lim said.
“Then I manage the limited space, take their keys and put their cars through. Most of the time, cars are moved to the roadside or a nearby parking lot once they are dropped off. We even pay franchise coffee shops across the street and use their parking lots,” Lim added.
Unlike in the US, where the culture of valet parking usually centers on luxury accommodations, such services here can make or break the businesses of restaurants, stores and bars.
In Korea, where there is no culture of tipping, the cost of valet services ranges from 1,000 won ($1) to 10,000 won depending on the time and location.
A noodle restaurant’s valet driver takes a customer’s car in Daechi-dong, Seoul. (Bak Se-hwan/The Korea Herald)
Regardless of whether or not there is ample space to park, customers are expected to pay once they hand over their keys.
Valets say fees are relatively cheap when restaurants or other places directly offer valet parking. However, the cost becomes more expensive if the service is subcontracted.
On more crowded streets, fees also go up, as vehicles have to be moved far away and retrieved later.
According to valet operators, demand for valet services began escalating a decade ago mainly in Seoul and its surrounding metropolitan cities, where more than half of the country’s 50 million people reside.
The number of valet parking employees or operators could exceed as many as tens of thousands just in Seoul, including part-timers, according to valets.
Some say the profession needs more recognition.
“People think a valet service is just part-time work to make some money on the side, but in many cases it is not,” said a valet in Gangnam who only gave his last name, Park.
“More people are choosing this profession of being a valet driver, but many are forced to accept low pay and poor working conditions, especially when they are employed by small valet service companies subcontracted to restaurants,” Park said.
Some valets also have to bear responsibility for any damage caused during their services or traffic fines imposed on cars that they parked on roadsides temporarily, according to Park.
“What I do for a living requires big responsibilities, especially when handling someone else’s expensive vehicles, which needs sophisticated skills.”
By Bak Se-hwan (firstname.lastname@example.org