It Started at High School Parties
When Brandon Black and Ryan Gibbs were 16-year-olds in high school at Western Albemarle back in 2005 they organized some car parking at parties. That’s where Southern Star Valet got started.
“We got so busy that we decided to make a business out of it,” said Black. They now have 14 part-time employees. Both founders still work other full-time jobs themselves. Gibbs is an electrician with Kennedy Electric in Crozet and Black works for a stone mason. Both are married, but neither has kids. They are hustling on nights and weekends to keep up with demand for their parking service.
“It has exceeded our expectations. It blew our minds how much work there is,” said Black.
“We do it in a formal way. We lock keys up. We care. Everybody who works for us gets a background check, a driving test, and their driving records are looked into.”
Southern Star oftens handles the busy parking lot at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, especially on weekends. “They used to have a lot of trouble [with parking]. People took up more than one spot with their cars. Some people parked along the shoulders of Rt. 151. The police like it that we take that pressure off. Now, when it gets full we turn into valet so nobody gets turned away,” said Black. “We charge according to the event and how many guys we’re going to need.” The brewery job usually requires six people.
Besides valet and parking attendant services, they offer doorman service and coat check help. “The fancier events want that,” said Black. “We get in tuxedos and wear doorman hats and white gloves.”
They scout job locations in advance to be able to make efficient set-ups. They come with tents and ponchos to work in rain. They have cones, flags and batons. They use radios to direct cars to vacant spots.
“We describe the cars as they come in the lot. You definitely have to have communication.” They wear safety vests and employees all wear uniform shirts. They pack coolers to have food. A day at Blue Mountain usually goes from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tips are pooled and split to be fair. “For the most part people will tip,” said Black.
“We come prepared for any conditions. We’ve worked in hurricanes. It can be tough. You get home at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and you have to be at an event at 7 a.m. We fell into it and it blossomed and got so busy.”
They have a special locking key stand and use a three-part number and tag system. “A claim ticket goes in three parts: one with the customer, one with the keys and one in the vehicle, Black explained. “We have never brought someone the wrong car yet.”
They have handled events at Veritas Vineyard in Afton and they managed parking for the grand opening of the Trump Winery. “Our toughest job was the Tough Mudder [a challenging fitness contest] at Wintergreen,” said Gibbs. They also have handled events at U.Va.’s art museum.
“We do lots of weddings, parties and events for politicians,” he said. “Valet is kind of new in our area. People don’t know if they can trust you. Some people who have nicer vehicles—Mercedes, Porsches—don’t want to turn them over. People’s attitudes can be surprising. For the most part, 99 percent of the time, folks are good. We have not had accident yet with a car in our care. We say to our guys, be very cautious.”
The company name just “popped into my head,” said Black. “We bring Southern charm everywhere we go. Southern charm has been dying out a bit, but we are bringing it back. We are polite as we can be. “It’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir.’ We open doors. We help people in and out of cars. We carry packages and we push wheelchairs.”