Radostin Nikolov worked for several years as a valet in downtown Naples, where he saw firsthand the challenges of parking cars in the increasingly busy Fifth Avenue South area. The Bulgarian native talked to his boss about improvements and changes that could be made. But the boss wasn’t interested.
So in 2013, Nikolov and friend and fellow valet Dimitar Bubarov went into business for themselves, launching Valet Pros. “We decided to start our own company and put our vision to work,” says Nikolov, 38.
First they had to convince the Fifth Avenue South Business Improvement District to give them a chance. A three-days-a-week trial run from December 2013 to April 2014 has since turned into a multiyear, permanent gig. “They had other companies bidding for the account back then, but we were the only ones that knew the area and were prepared with a real plan,” says Nikolov. “The other companies were national companies that didn’t even know about the problems in the area.”
"We’re always one step ahead. We’d rather be overprepared than underprepared. The worst thing that can happen to me is for someone to come to our parking lot and we tell them we have no space." —Radostin Nikolov, Valet Pros
One of those ongoing problems? Finding places where valets could actually park the cars. For years other providers made do with whatever they could find, which was often less than ideal and sometimes made residents and businesses in the area unhappy.
Nikolov and Bubarov have negotiated with property owners of office buildings, banks, and other businesses where parking lots sit empty after 5 p.m. or on weekends. They present the proposition as a win-win: The property owners get some rent money from Valet Pros, and Valet Pros monitors the lots to ensure they’re kept clean and safe as they use them in the evenings. The company currently works with nine different property owners and has more than 500 spaces it can use in 13 different lots.
In its first year of business, Valet Pros parked 6,000 cars. That was three times what the company Nikolov and Bubarov had previously worked for would park in a year, and they did it operating only three days a week and at three locations.
The company now has six valet stations along Fifth Avenue South and 28 employees during season. From October 2021 through May 2022 — season in Southwest Florida — Valet Pros parked 55,000 cars, a major milestone for the business. The company charges customers $7 for its valet services and has been growing about 20% a year. Nikolov sees more growth ahead. “We hope to park 60,000 to 70,000 cars next year, which is very possible,” he says.
Keeping the business running smoothly and successfully requires an ability to stay on top of a lot of components. The company keeps tabs on the Fifth Avenue scene and forges relationships with the restaurants that benefit from its services. It anticipated the growth of the west end of the avenue and established a valet station there before it got busy, for example. It also began preparing for a post-pandemic pickup in business well in advance.
“We’re always one step ahead,” says Nikolov. “We’d rather be over-prepared than underprepared. The worst thing that can happen to me is for someone to come to our parking lot and we tell them we have no space.”
Valet Pros also has to keep up with its permitting from the Naples City Council, providing yearly reports and applying for renewal every three years. And since they operate in a wealthy area, everyone has to stay informed about the latest and greatest high-end cars — and what it takes to drive them. It is not uncommon for employees to park pricey rides like Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.
That also means hiring is a careful process. Not only do employees have to be able to drive and park cars safely, they also need to be fit enough to run up to eight miles a night. Nikolov and Bubarov train every employee themselves and start them off slowly until they’re fully up to speed on the company’s procedures and customer service standards. “Even if they don’t have experience, if they want to learn and are smart, fit guys, I know I can make it work,” he says.
With business going so well, people often ask Nikolov if he will expand to another market. That’s a slow ride — by design. “I want to have what I have and make it work better and better,” Nikolov says. “For me it’s better to focus on what I have and make it better than spread it around and then nothing works well.