(Herb) Sculpture by: Ione Citrin
By John Van Horn
How do you write a story about a parking
legend? Do you talk about his background as a Navy submariner during
WWII, or his loyalty to one customer, or his longevity? Or the personal
relationships he has developed over more than six decades in the parking
industry? PT mostly listened. This charming man did the rest.
at lunch listening to Herb Citrin talk about his life is an instruction
book on how to succeed. He is the definition of quality and service. He
insists that the success of his Valet Parking Service, celebrating its
60th year this month, is a result of a focus on those two attributes.
"And relationship-building," he adds.
I came back from the service in 1945, I went to work for my uncle's
friend, a jeweler. I didn't like being inside, and my dad suggested I
contact Lawry's restaurant, where I had worked with him before the war.
He told me to offer to take over their valet parking operation."
The 23-year-old got his contract in April 1946 and never looked back.
had an interesting clause in the contract. They told me I had to
personally be there every day. And I was, for the next 14 years. That
made company growth a bit difficult, but a contract is a contract.
mother told me I was born under a lucky star. It must have been true.
Virtually all of the new business I had in the early years was from
people who called out of the blue and asked me to come over and talk
about running their valet operation."
(Herb also mentions an incident
during the war. He was assigned as a radio operator on the submarine
Tullibee. After two patrols, he was transferred to the Tinosa. On the
Tullibee's next patrol, it was sunk. Herb is certain that his mother's
lucky star had a lot to do with that transfer.)
"I noticed that most
of the valets at the time were dressed in dungarees and sloppy shirts. I
thought they should look smart. So I bought U.S. Air Force officer
uniforms - without the insignia - and dressed my crew in them. It was a
big hit. Those uniforms were expensive, but they became my marketing
"In the beginning, I put the name of the account on the
jacket. After we began to grow, I had to stop that. It was too difficult
to keep track of the uniforms and staff."
Citrin focused on Los
Angeles' Restaurant Row. Lawry's The Prime Rib was surrounded by other
first-class restaurants, and they noticed his sharp-looking crew and
great service. Before long, he was handling accounts throughout the
"I made it a policy to never say no. I took advantage of every opportunity."
By June 1956, he had 20 accounts and was still working nightly parking cars at Lawry's.
1960, Los Angeles International Airport was expanding and needed valet
service. He got the deal, but knew he couldn't handle it if he was still
parking cars nightly at Lawry's. He had a discussion with management,
and after guaranteeing impeccable service, was provided an amended
contract. Valet Parking handles Lawry's The Prime Rib to this day.
the 1960s, hotel and department store accounts began to grow. He also
followed his customers as they expanded into San Francisco, Chicago,
Dallas, Austin, San Diego and Honolulu. VPS operates only in Los Angeles
today. "We didn't leave any of those cities, but sold the operations.
You will still see our logo in over 180 locations in Chicago, Dallas and
Citrin's company has provided valet services for the
Academy Awards for more than 30 years. It covers the Emmys, Golden
Globes and other major Hollywood events, and supplies a permanent staff
to Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion.
"Most people don't understand that
no matter what it says on the ticket, valet operations take
responsibility for the car when you drop it off. Any damage or loss and
we have to pay. The insurance deductible is high."
In the beginning,
parking was provided free at the restaurants. VPS worked for tips and
maybe a little support from its customer. Labor laws changed, and it was
no longer able to require that the valets turn their tips over to the
"It was a problem to get the restaurants to agree to let us
charge. They all told us that when Lawry's did, they would. We began
charging $1.50 a car at Lawry's in 1978. Think about it. Thirty years
later, we can't get more than $4.50 in most locations; $5 is a lot. At
the fanciest restaurant in Beverly Hills, we get $7. That's less than
the cost for one martini and we are accepting responsibility for a
$100,000 vehicle. Makes no sense."
The restaurants fear that if they
charge more, customers will go somewhere else. PT commented that it was
strange that folks would pay $10 to park at Dodger Stadium or the
Hollywood Bowl, but balk at $5 for valet service. "It's the way it is,"
Do they lose locations? "Sure - but usually we give them
up when they become financially negative. In the beginning, we were paid
to park the cars; now, in some cases, we pay the restaurants rent for
the right to park the cars. When they demand more than is reasonable, or
when a competitor over-bids us, it may be time to move on. Sometimes a
new owner will come in and bring a parking company with them."
was first with valet parking at an airport, started the first valet
services for special events, and while most valet companies had one or
two locations, he grew his operation to more than 200 locations and
He sought retirement, and sold Valet Parking Service
in 2003. The commercial self-park portion went to Ampco System, and the
valet portion was sold to his two senior staff members, Tony Policella
and Victor Morad. Herb was provided a three-year consulting contract.
former member of the National Parking Association's Board of Directors,
Citrin keeps in touch with people across the country. "I have a lot of
contacts, and do a little additional consulting now and then."
have made quite a difference in the parking business, particularly in
L.A. At least half the valet companies in town were started by former
Valet Parking Services staff."
As we pick up the car after lunch,
sure enough, the manager of the garage comes out and shakes hands with
Herb. A former employee. Herb remembers him by name and smiles as he
notes that he now works for a competitor.
Retire? He still keeps a
desk at VPS and goes in often. "It wouldn't seem right. I've been doing
this all my life." Herb Citrin is 84, plays tennis twice a week, and
works out with a trainer the other days. He lives in a Century City high
rise with his wife, Ione, and two cats.
Would he use a valet or park
on the street? "If there's a spot on the curb out front, I'll take it.
Frankly, I'll use whatever's closer. I want convenience."
And that's what he gave his customers.
It was many years ago, recalls the "godfather" of Los Angeles
valet parking, that a young starlet wearing a dress with a long, flowing train
exited her limousine and wasn't entirely clear of the car door when the
attendant closed it.
The back of her dress caught in the door and yes the train was torn right off.
"That's one of the ones you'd like to forget," said Herb Citrin, who
founded Valet Parking Service in Beverly
Hills in 1946 and whose company has had one of the
longest-running contracts in Tinseltown history. Even though Citrin sold his
company, he still remains a consultant and is particularly busy now during
Most of his memories from his 60 years of handling cars and stars at the
Academy Awards, the Emmys and various other Hollywood
happenings were more pleasant than the dress ripping episode. The Oscars were a