ST. PETERSBURG — It's one of the hottest commodities in downtown's surging dining scene, and it has little to do with food.
Several restaurants have deals with the city that allow them to take up street parking spaces with valet services at steep discounts that would otherwise produce more revenue with meters.
Four restaurants that take advantage of the program all lay claim to the upper tier of downtown's dining experience: Beach Drive's Bella Brava and Cassis American Brasserie and Central Avenue's Oyster Bar and Acropolis Taverna. Combined, the four restaurants take 23 metered parking spaces out of commission to use for valet service. Restaurant customers can use the service for free; the public pays between $5 and $10.
Beach Drive's Parkshore Grill offers valet in spaces reserved for a loading zone. Fourth Street's Primi Urban Cafe uses an area that includes one metered space.
The discounts were first offered six years ago as a way to prime the pump for a downtown struggling to become a destination nightspot. Now many see them as a coveted prize that's not available to all.
The city charges those restaurants $2 a day for each meter, which would normally produce an average of between $3.30 to $6.60 per day in meter revenue. By comparison, Tampa charges businesses between $7.50 and $15 per day to have valet at similar spaces.
Two new St. Petersburg establishments want to offer valet in public parking spaces, too, but the city has rejected their requests citing concerns about clogging up traffic because too many cars are waiting in too many valet lines.
Officials with Tryst Gastro Lounge and Birchwood Inn say they are at a competitive disadvantage without the valet service.
"We have customers complain because we don't have it," said Ilhan Erkek, the chef at Tryst Gastro Lounge, which is sandwiched between Parkshore and Bella Brava. "I probably lose 10 to 20 percent in business because I don't have it."
Birchwood Inn, which will open in December, will feature a "world fusion" restaurant on the ground floor, a ballroom for weddings on the fourth floor, and a rooftop South Beach-style lounge, said owner Chuck Prather. Without valet parking, Prather said he'd be at a loss.
"It's an amenity that most people expect," Prather said.
Evan Mory, manager of the city's parking division, said the city is working with Tryst and Birchwood to make other parking arrangements.
Too many valet stands could slow traffic flow as cars queue up to get parked, said Evan Mory, the manager of the city's parking division.
Overall, he said, the city is satisfied with the valet system.
The discounts, however, seem to conflict with a well-established effort by Mayor Bill Foster to get overall downtown visitors to pay more for street parking.
Since becoming mayor in January 2010, Foster has doubled the hourly metered parking rate from 50 cents to $1. He added 280 meters, which were installed by March. More than $400,000 in new revenue is expected to be produced this year.
Foster said Friday that there are trade-offs from the valet agreements that end up benefiting the city, such as parking convenience. But he said he will review the agreements with staff to make sure they are fair.
"We need to strike a balance between the business interests and their success and the public's demand for parking," Foster said. "We can't make it too hard to park."
Mory said a typical parking space along Beach Drive would have about three cars during a given night. But with valet, runners can turn around as many as six or seven cars per space each night, expanding the actual inventory of parking. The runners then park the cars at a remote lot that's either private or in a city garage, producing more revenue.
Some people prefer valet, because they don't have to dig for quarters to feed the meters or try to figure out the credit card system of payment.
"I'm delighted the restaurants offer it," said Linda Testa, a Venetian Isles resident who calls herself a Beach Drive regular. "No matter where I go, I prefer valet."
Despite the discount rate, Mory said he doesn't think the valet spaces ultimately cost the city. Many of the meters are used in the mornings and early afternoon, producing revenue, and only used for valet at night, he said.
Valet is convenient for some diners, who add to the sales tax revenue for the city and help plump up the employment rolls.
Frank Fatica has been parking cars for one of the larger valet companies, Seven One Seven Parking Enterprises. He said he parks between 50 and 100 cars a night and gets an average tip of $3 for each car he parks, on top of his $4.50 hourly wage.
Another large valet company, Courtesy Valet Corp., has seen a jump in business of about 10 percent from last year, said owner Kris Jacobs. He says valet doesn't cost the city because many cars get parked in city garages.
A committee of Beach Drive restaurant owners recently formed that will seek changes in the valet system. A number of recommendations could be made to the City Council on how to change the existing services, such as allowing more valet stands and raising the fees that could be charged to the public from the current $10 maximum.
"I'm from Philadelphia, where they charge $20 for valet," said Jeremy Duclut, the chef for Cassis. "So I'm in favor of charging more for valet. Maybe the city could subsidize some of the cost."
Despite the deal with the city that saves restaurants the front-end cost for the parking spaces, restaurants still must pay the valet companies to work at the restaurants and spaces in city garages or private lots to park the cars. Duclut wouldn't disclose how much Cassis pays Seven One Seven, but said it is expensive.
"It's worth it, though" he said.
The main group that benefits are those who dine at the restaurants that provide it. They don't get charged a fee beyond what they decide to tip.
When Testa and her Thursday night dinner companion, Nona Peebles, were told that Cassis pays about $2 per day for each of the nine meters it uses on Beach Drive, they were surprised.
"When you think about it, that's not much," Peebles said. "They should probably pay more."
But the more they did think about it, Peebles and Testa decided other benefits helped balance the costs.
Foster said he's glad valet service is such an issue.
"It's a nice problem to have," Foster said. "It just means there's more of a demand to visit downtown."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8037.