Booting mania hits East Isles strip mall

A rash of car booting incidents has recently left more than a few Hennepin Plaza customers paying for more than they bargained for. Drivers stopping to grab a morning cup of coffee at the plaza’s Caribou or Starbucks have returned to their cars only a few minutes later to confront a $96 fee to remove a "boot," a device that immobilizes an improperly parked car’s tire.

The East Isles parking lot, close to 24th & Hennepin has been the scene of what some call "predatory booting" – where booters allegedly hide and catch offenders unaware.

While seven signs posted in the lot warn of the danger, the frequent bootings suggest that drivers either don’t see these signs or ignore them. Many think that a minute or two couldn’t possibly be enough time for anyone to get booted. Unfortunately for them, this isn’t the case.

According to eyewitnesses, booters usually work in pairs of two: a "spotter," who inconspicuously watches over the lot, and a nearby "bootman," who waits for his partner’s call. The process can take as little as a minute to be completed.

This practice came to be popular at Hennepin Plaza because of a conflict between the Caribou franchise and the Baja Sol Restaurant, which are located in the same building and share a small number of parking spaces.

According to Baja Sol CEO Mike Pratt, "ever since Caribou opened, Baja Sol’s customers have found it increasingly difficult to find an empty parking space."

He said, "When Caribou came to Hennepin Plaza [the idea] was that they would use most of the parking at the beginning of the day, Caribou’s prime meal period, and Baja Sol would have plenty of parking at lunch and dinner, its prime meal periods. But Caribou is not being a good neighbor. They encourage people to park for long periods, and they refuse to even discuss a cooperative parking arrangement."

Pratt cites Caribou’s unwillingness to talk as the final reason for hiring the CPES Booting Company.

However, according to some Hennepin Plaza employees who wish to remain anonymous, the booters generally are seen in the morning hours, when Baja Sol sees much fewer customers than its coffee-selling neighbor.

Recently Pratt, finally met with Caribou execs to discuss the problem. The eventual agreement was to add more warning signs. CPES, however, appears to be there to stay.

Caribou Executive Michael Coles calls it "an upsetting situation. I don’t think this should have come to booting," he says, "These are our customers as well as their customers."

The only winners in this fiasco appear to be the booters. "We don’t have people waiting in the lots," CPES representative Alex Onan said.

Onan calls booting a "kinder alternative to towing." He also claims that the real fault lies with the Caribou establishment allowing its customers to "prey on other people’s parking spaces. They don’t care."

Whether or not it’s their fault, Caribou customers definitely aren’t pleased.

Jim Owens was booted while buying his morning coffee. Though he says that he saw signs warning him not to park by Baja Sol, he believed the middle of the lot to be safe. The experience has led Owens, a longtime Caribou customer, to take his business elsewhere. "I say boycott all retailers in those developments," he said.

Owens feels he was preyed upon by "stalkers," and has a friend whose son was also booted in the same lot. He blames the booters’ tactics but believes the businesses are at fault for hiring them in the first place.

Booting complaints are not limited to Hennepin Plaza; city officials recently passed tougher regulations that limit booters’ ability to be quite as furtive about it (see accompanying story, facing page).

Still, Hennepin Plaza customers will have to be more alert to where they are parking and who is watching.