Drive By

I was on a conference call the other day where we discussed whether we needed valet parking for a new project that was a little thin on dedicated parking spaces. The price tag for valet parking is a little daunting when number crunching an initial pro forma, so it sometimes falls by the wayside when push comes to shove. I had a little déjà vu moment as I realized how many times I’ve had this conversation over the years, but here is what I’ve learned: It’s not about the number of parking spaces…it’s about the perceived parking.

When guests drive up to a restaurant, they often make a quick calculation about how quickly they will be seated and served, and that includes parking the car, walking to the restaurant, getting to the top of the wait list and getting to the focal part of their evening—their meal.

♦ On the call, I pointed out that a restaurant with a busy after-work happy hour usually has a parking lot full of singles, each of whom drove separately, creating the illusion that the restaurant is full when the dining room may be empty. When the early dinner crowd arrives and sees a full lot, they just drive by. Two executives on the call recounted doing just that at another restaurant in the area.

♦ I mentioned this to my sister, and she told me that the night before she and her husband were meeting after work at PF Chang’s in Tempe, Arizona, and he actually called her to tell her that he was in the restaurant and had been seated so that she wouldn’t look at the sparse parking and do a “drive by.”

♦ This is really about one of my favorite topics, “The Comfort of Convenience.”

♦ I had a woman in a focus group I facilitated years ago admit that she would willingly drive by her favorite coffee place to go to the new Starbucks because it had a drive-thru window, saying, “I don’t want to ruin my cute shoes in the bad weather.” This resonated with me as I have often avoided trudging through the parking lot in my cute shoes too.

♦ The issue of parking convenience may seem somewhat gender-specific, but I don’t think so. One of my colleagues admitted that his wife shares my affinity for valet parking and that even he likes it because it “makes you feel richer than you are.”

♦ If a restaurant doesn’t have a big enough dedicated parking field and is adjacent to a parking-intensive business, people will assume you are too busy for them to get in and out in a reasonable period of time. I had a quick-casual client years ago that opened a site next to a driving school. When class was in, all bets were off. Even though it had great demographics in tony Naperville, Illinois, the location didn’t even last a year.

♦ On the more casual side of the equation, I also hear it from mothers who don’t want to worry about the kids in the back seat while they run in to pick up dinner from their favorite quick-casual place, making either fast food or a casual restaurant with curbside carryout a much preferred option.

A brand is a set of expectations…and perceived parking creates a set of expectations. Managing those expectations can make or break your business.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.