The Waitr App
Small town native Chris Meaux, CEO of food delivery app Waitr, has found fast success targeting smaller markets “the big guys won’t touch.” Not afraid to think big, he’s now setting out to transform the entire restaurant industry.
No more standing in line to order food. No more giving your order to a waiter or figuring out how to split a check. Saints players delivering dinner to your front door.
Crazy dreams? Nope, just Waitr CEO and founder Chris Meaux sharing his plans for 2018.
A native of Estherwood, Louisiana (population 977), Meaux grew up showing livestock with dreams of becoming a veterinarian.
While in college at LSU, he discovered a love of computers, but this shining star of Louisiana’s tech community’s small-town roots remain very much a part of his company and who he is.
Clad in jeans, Meaux throws out words like “city folk” and instead of a briefcase, carries a backpack everywhere he goes. Inside sits one of his most treasured possessions — a well-worn LSU notebook.
It was in this notebook, back in 2013, that Meaux worked out all of his ideas for a food delivery app he was going to call Foogle — “food plus Google.”
In January 2015 that dream came to life under a different name – Waitr. The on-demand food delivery restaurant platform allows you to order food from local restaurants online, or from any iPhone or Android device, and have it delivered.
In the three years since its launch in Lake Charles, the company has grown its presence to 150 cities and six states, taking over 4 million orders in 2017.
“We grew 390 percent between 2016 and 2017,” said Meaux. We’ll do close to 9 million orders this year and all of it started in this notebook as an idea.”
While in college, Meaux started buying parts and building computers to sell to businesses. His first job out of college was selling computers for Hyundai Electronics. But it was during the dot com boom that Meaux took his first leap into entrepreneurism.
It didn’t go well.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE FIRST TECH COMPANY YOU STARTED?
I started an internet company in Silicon Valley that had a little success off the bat. We developed one of the first DIY website tools for small businesses to build their own websites. We were really focused on doctors, lawyers, etc. Then, when the bubble burst, it ended up being a colossal failure. The company ended up going out of business, which took a pretty big toll on me personally. As the leader, I felt like I could have done something differently, but the reality was a lot of companies failed. It took me a long time to get over that.
I almost gave up on entrepreneurship. In fact, I got to the point, right before I started Waitr, where I was so down on entrepreneurship that I had decided to just go get a teacher’s certificate and become a teacher or do some noble profession and teach others — maybe how to avoid the same mistakes I did. Instead, my wife encouraged me to keep going with another idea I had.
HOW DID THE IDEA FOR WAITR COME ABOUT?
In between the computer work I had owned a couple of restaurants with some partners. That’s when I first thought of the idea in 2009. I started a concept called Meaux 2 Geaux in South Lake Texas in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, where you could order food on the internet, and we would cook it and deliver it. I rented a test kitchen to try it and it was actually fairly successful but I could never find a permanent spot that was affordable to roll out that concept so I put it on the shelf. In 2011, I moved back to Louisiana, to Lake Charles.
THE REAL JUMPING OFF FOR WAITR THEN OCCURRED IN 2013?
Yes, I decided to drive to Startup weekend in Gainesville in October 2013 and pitch my food delivery idea. The way Startup Weekend works is it starts on Friday, where you have 60 seconds to pitch your idea. From there you form a team and have to create a prototype in 54 hours. On Sunday, there’s a panel of judges that pick a winner. We actually won the competition, so I turned to the four guys on my team and told them I was going to go back to Louisiana and raise the money to start this company. Two didn’t want to continue, and two did, they were students at the University of Florida — Evan Diaz d’Arce and Addison Killebrew. They probably thought they’d never see me again [laughs].
From there, I needed two more software developers, so I emailed all the professors at colleges in Louisiana and said ‘I’m starting this company, this is what I’m going to do. I need two software developers, one that understands application development and one that understands backend development.’ From that I found Adam Murnane and Manuel Rivero, who were students at McNeese University. All four are cofounders of Waitr. They built the product while they were still in school and I was raising the money and funding the company for about 9 months until we raised our first capital.
We incorporated in Dec. 2013 and got our first funds from local investors in St. Charles in May of 2014. Then we were on our way. We spent most of 2014 developing the software and then rolled out the app to the App Store in January 2015.
We actually rolled out as dine-in first. You would go to a restaurant, sit down and go on your phone and order and the food would come out to your table. We tested it in Lake Charles and it really took off.
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE LIKE PITCHING TO VENTURE CAPITALISTS?
I remember pitching to some VCs in Houston and they sat me down and said, ‘If you’re going to do this you’re going to have to be in Austin or Silicon Valley because you’re not going to find enough software engineers in Louisiana.’ They actually said, ‘If we’re going to invest, you have to move the company.’
At that point I said to myself, ‘Don’t move the company. You can do it here.’ Then someone turned me on to LED and they talked to me about the Angel Investor Tax Credit program they had. At the time, it was a 35 percent tax credit to investors who invested in Louisiana-based startups. Well, I wanted to raise $200,000 so I thought, if I raise 200,000 those investors will be getting 70,000 back, meaning their net investment is only 130,000 but has a 200,000 value. So I applied for it and we used that in the first funding round.
At that point I started reading through the other programs on LED’s website and became interested in the Digital Interactive Media and Software Development Incentive, which, at the time I think, meant we could get 35 percent back on the money we spent developing software. It allowed us to kind of extend the runway for the capital that we raised. Basically, if I spent $1 million developing software and got $350,000 back, that was hugely important to a startup company like ours.
YOU USED ANOTHER STATE PROGRAM TO HELP WITH YOUR EXPANSION, RIGHT?
Yes. In 2015 Waitr was in Lake Charles and Lafayette, and I think we had just launched in Baton Rouge. We were starting to expand, but we didn’t have any research on where we should be going and it was going to cost us a lot of money to get the research to expand out of Louisiana.
That was when Chris Cassagne pitched us LED’s Economic Gardening Initiative for second stage companies like ours. We gave them a 12-state area and said we were looking for cities like we were in that would be perfect for us to expand. They did the research and it didn’t cost us anything.
They came back with 222 markets out of that study and we narrowed that down to 80 markets. We opened 24 of those 80 by the end of 2017 and we’ll open another 24 to 30 new markets this year. We now have a roadmap. We wouldn’t have had that without LED.
YOU EXPANDED OUT TO CALIFORNIA BUT ARE NO LONGER THERE. WHAT HAPPENED?
We bought a company out there and launched in Sacramento, but it was only open for a few months. What we figured out really quickly is that our playbook is more suited to contiguous expansion as opposed to just popping up hubs around the country. As a result, we grow now from markets we’re already strong in. We realized we really need to focus on our base – the Gulf South. We’ll eventually get to those cities and those markets though.
SO THE APP IS FREE FOR USERS, WITH JUST A FLAT DELIVERY FEE, BUT THE RESTAURANTS PAY TO BE INCLUDED. WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS TO THEM?
I’ll give you a number. It’s a pretty amazing number. In 2017, we brought restaurants $90 million in food sales. In most cases, restaurants have told us they saw a 20 to 25 percent increase over their normal business. What we’re doing is helping restaurants get orders they wouldn’t normally get because we’re making it convenient for the consumer and connecting them to the restaurant. As a former restaurateur, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. In the last two years, we’ve brought restaurants over $160 million in business.
RESTAURANTS HAVE ACCESS TO THE MENU PEOPLE SEE ON THE APP, RIGHT?
Restaurants have access to the menu people see on the app right?Yes. We built a menu manager platform just for restaurants so that once we add them in they can easily change their menu themselves — they can add items, delete items, change pricing. If they’re out of green beans, for example, then they can put that in and the next customer won’t be able to order them. It’s a very robust platform and that’s a big differentiator between us and our competitors.
We also give them the ability to add a button to their website that says, ‘Order Online.’ What used to happen is that restaurants would put their menu up on their website and it would stay up there for a year or two. Some wouldn’t even know who their webmaster was or it was just a pain to get it changed. Now we give them this button and it leads to a menu that is always up to date. A perfect example is Zea’s.
Now customers have three ways to order from them— from Zea’s website, the Waitr.com website and the Waitr app itself. Restaurants love that.
WHAT DOES WAITR'S INFRASTRUCTURE LOOK LIKE? HOW MANY PEOPLE DO YOU EMPLOY?
Our operations center is in Lafayette and we have about 125 to 130 employees there. Our headquarters are still in Lake Charles — we have about 75 to 80 there. Plus, in every city where we operate, we have a small office of usually about four to five people. All in all, it adds up right now to 246 corporate employees and over 2,800 driver employees.
WAITR MOVED INTO NEW ORLEANS IN 2015 AND YOU HAVE SINCE GARNERED THE SUPPORT OF A PRETTY FAMOUS SAINTS PLAYER. HOW DID DREW BREES GET INVOLVED?
Yes, he invested in one of our rounds a little over a year ago. Drew is of course a partner at Walk On’s and we put that restaurant online in Lake Charles first, after which they saw a huge spike in their to-go business. Later I actually ran into Brandon Landry at a business pitch in Baton Rouge — he was a judge in a panel where I was doing a pitch. He’s the one that hooked me up with Drew. We started talking on the phone and he liked the idea. It happened that we were just doing a round of funding so he decided to lead that round.
Separately, we’re actually the official food delivery app for the Saints. We’ve done some deliveries with some of the cheerleaders. I’m not sure we’ve done any with players yet but we will. Never know who’s going to knock on your door.
THERE'S BEEN SOME COMPETITION SPROUTING UP IN YOUR MARKET SINCE YOU STARTED. THE FIRST ONE I THINK OF IS UBER EATS. IS THIS HURTING YOU AT ALL?
Since we started the space has gotten kind of crowded, but we actually don’t face a lot of competition other than in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. This is mostly because we built our company to focus on those smaller to mid-size markets where those other companies typically wouldn’t go. We’re a small-town company. One of our tags is “we’re local everywhere,” and we are. We have a local organization everywhere that runs those markets. That gives us a significant advantage. Our competitors don’t have that ground game in those markets.
Of course we do have our challenges, especially in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge markets where we’ve had so much growth that it’s hard to keep up, but we’re managing through those problems. With most cities we go to though it’s more like, ‘Thank goodness someone thought of us.’ Places like Gulfport, Mississippi and Columbus Georgia that we’re about to go into. Some of these places don’t have a lot of businesses that come there and roll something out that they can sink their teeth into.
Of course it’s also just a better experience on Waitr than it is on UberEats.
SO IT'S SAFE TO ASSUME WAITR IS IN LOUISIANA TO STAY?
I think about all those VCs telling me to move out of Louisiana and it’s funny because I’m talking to VCs now who are wanting to invest outside of those traditional valleys. So I tell them about these programs we have here and for the most part they don’t believe me until they look at it. Once they see it they say ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ We’ll spend probably $2 to 3 million in new software development and we’ll get back 25 percent of that. That’s incredible.
This is really a great state for entrepreneurism. We’ve raised a total of $26 million to fund our company to this point — almost every dime from investors in Louisiana. And I could raise a ton more if we needed to but we don’t need to. There is a lot of money in this state looking for entrepreneurs with great ideas to invest in. I just want Louisiana entrepreneurs, especially, to know that you can build a successful technology company in the state of Louisiana, no matter what VCs from the coast tell you.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR WAITR?
We’re in 24 markets right now and we want to be in 50-plus markets by the end of 2018. We want to cover that 12-state region that we had economic gardening research for us. We want to be in every one of those 12 states in 2018 and if we do that, we’ll employ, I think over 8,000 people total. Right now we employ 2,200 or 2,300 people in the state of Louisiana. We’ll probably add another 500 to 1,000 in Louisiana. That includes our drivers too, but a lot of that will be corporate. We’ll be positioned really well to expand beyond those 12 states in 2019.
One of things we’re doing now is expanding into alcohol delivery. We’ve already built that capability into the app in a way that has seven levels of checks that ensure minors can’t order alcohol through Waitr. We want to accomplish that this year too.
We’re also going to roll out dine-in this year. We’re going to start working with fast casual restaurants so that instead of standing in line, you’ll just go sit down at a table and order on Waitr. We’ll eventually move into full service, not to replace the server, we won’t replace the server. What we’ll do is augment what the server is capable of doing. The server will still be there to bring food, do refills, get your silverware, all of that, but they won’t have to be in the back keying orders, splitting checks, and all of that. Waitr can do that for you.
This will allow servers to serve more tables meaning servers will make more money, restaurants will make more money and Waitr’ll make a bit of money. Everybody will be better off. That’s a project I want to see come to fruition in 2018 and it will happen.
We’re also doing grocery delivery in Lake Charles, where we started a pilot with Market Basket. It’s going really well. So eventually, maybe you’ll be able to do groceries through Waitr.
Imagine if every time you thought of food, you went to Waitr. That’s really what I want.
LOOKING MORE LONG-TERM, WHAT ARE YOUR ULTIMATE GOALS FOR THE COMPANY?
I have a bigger vision of the future for the restaurant industry and technology. Restaurants struggle with a lot of things in the front of the house — a lot of turnover with servers, a lot of struggles with scheduling and with point of sale systems. I think Waitr can solve a lot of these problems. I want our company to be the leading platform of the front-of-the-house problems.
What does that mean? Not only can you order for delivery on Waitr, you can use Waitr as your order entry point for servers. That means when servers take an order they put it right into the Waitr order manager. It replaces the order entry point at the point of sales system.
Really big vision: I do believe that drone delivery is going to happen at some point. If Waitr can be involved in those kinds of things, I think it would be great. And there’s some efforts we’re looking at.
MANY PEOPLE HAVE SAID THAT LOUISIANA NEEDS THAT BIG "WIN" IN TERMS OF TECH. DO YOU SEE WAITR AS THAT WIN?
Well, of course I’d love to be the biggest technology success story in Louisiana, but Centurylink’s a pretty big company [laughing]. But hey that’s a goal to shoot for.
I’ll tell you like I tell our team, we’ve had some success but we’re not successful yet. What we need to do is get Waitr to be successful.
What does successful look like? I can’t really tell you, but it’s a big win for Louisiana and we’ll know it when it happens. Either a nice exit for our investors, we service the bulk of our nation. I can’t tell you what it looks like yet, but success for Waitr is absolutely going to be success for Louisiana.
“Crossing the Casim”
Favorite TV Show?
Who do you look up to?
Biggest life lesson learned?
Learn from failure and power on!
Best advice ever received?
Be humble and listen!
Not a habitual person but I do like to finish my day with a review of tomorrow.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year?
Fulfilling more of my vision for Waitr!