2011 June: Parking Wars

The running joke at Piecora’s Pizza in Seattle reads: “We sell parking, and it comes with food.”
With restaurants and bars blanketing Piecora’s high-density Seattle neighborhood and street parking at a premium, the pizzeria’s 45-stall parking lot stands both a welcome site to customers and a boon to business. “Without the parking lot, our sales would be down significantly and we couldn’t have the capacity (over 200 seats) we do,” says owner Dan Piecora, whose driving customers would otherwise have to find hard-to-come-by street parking or paid parking one block away to accommodate their visit.

In an ideal world, all operators might own land with ample space for the restaurant and parking; unfortunately, that reality proves elusive for many. Particularly in urban areas, Main Street business districts and resort spots, parking can be tough to find given residences, commercial outlets and visitors all clamoring for their slice of blacktop. Toss in municipalities’ evolving desire to charge for parking — sometimes inflated rates — and the parking issue intensifies. Inaccessible parking can unnerve customers and compel them to choose another eatery, subsequently impacting sales. “If people can’t park and can’t reach you, then they won’t come,” says Chris Bianco, owner of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. “There’s no faux finish to parking; it’s just a reality that needs to be addressed.”

Prior to opening his namesake pizzeria, Piecora sat on a Seattle neighborhood council in 1979. Surveying the residents about important issues, the top two concerns — before social issues such as crime and education — were affordable local dining and parking. Those survey results guided Piecora’s concept, site selection and focus on dedicated parking, one key to Piecora’s 30-year survival.
Piecora believes that his 45-stall parking lot expands his customer base, entices people to travel to his location, and plays to families, some of whom might scratch a restaurant off their list if parking is a hassle.
“We constantly hear that people come to us solely because we have parking, so the lot has served us well,” says Piecora, adding that the availability of parking at his pizzeria has increased his takeout business, many customers selecting his outlet over rivals because of the easy-in, easy-out process.

When parking supply does not match parking demand, many operations turn to one of three solutions:
Vouchers and validation. If a private or public lot is nearby, many operators work with the lot’s owner to provide discounted or even free parking to restaurant customers. Though it can be a costly premise, validated parking can bring customers in the door, overcome the veto vote and minimize parking stress.With limited parking available at its downtown Phoenix spot, Pizzeria Bianco validates parking at a nearby 300-spot city lot, a necessary expense many operators encounter as they try to remove obstacles for customers. Validation “is simply the cost of doing business in the big city,” Bianco says. “If you want people to come to you, this is one solution.”

Valet. Once the sole domain of high-end establishments, valet parking has trickled down the restaurant food chain, particularly in high-traffic areas. In fact, most cities now host a number of credible valet companies a restaurateur can contract to handle the parking operation and its unique liability concerns. Others, however, take matters into their own hands.

As snow piled up outside of Vito and Michael’s Gourmet Pizza in New City, New York, and parking became thin, the pizzeria’s owners offered temporary valet parking as a service to customers. On weekends and for special events, Piecora hires a parking lot monitor who is charged with monitoring interlopers, helping customers find spots and, in some cases, double parking cars to further maximize the lot’s capacity. “Though yet another cost to bear, you’re providing a real service to your customers and taking the hassle of parking right out of their hands when you offer valet service,” says Denise Beeson, a California-based small business consultant. Many pizzerias highlight the valet parking service on their marketing efforts, just the incentive some consumers might need to visit the establishment.

Neighborhood partnerships. In their quest for parking solutions, operators are increasingly turning to partnerships with other local entities, specifically those with limited hours and parking spots, such as schools, churches, and banks.
On Sunday mornings, Piecora allows a church across the street to direct its overflow parking into his lot. While he hasn’t had to ask the church to return the favor, he knows his neighborly ways could yield future assistance.

“If we need to, we know we could ask and it’s nice to have that type of relationship when your business depends on customers getting in your doors,” Piecora says.Weekday lunch visitors to Pompei’s flagship location in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood must find and pay for street parking. On most nights and weekends, however, Pompei visitors enjoy easier parking thanks to access to an elementary school lot adjacent to the restaurant.
Bianco calls this smart business.

“Look at your relationship with your city, your neighbors, and then get a solution that maximizes efficiencies,” he says. “That’s what good business is all about.”

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers and magazines.