Tech entrepreneur launches brand in Lake Charles
In 2013, Lake Charles native Chris Meaux and a team of entrepreneurs developed a new business concept as part of an entrepreneurial idea-sharing event in Florida. With the potential to disrupt the restaurant delivery business, the phone-app concept developed by the team presented opportunities for restaurants to grow their business by connecting with an entirely new group of untapped patrons. And for Meaux, the tech- and food-based concept would marry two industries familiar to the veteran of restaurant and software security firms.
Seeing many possibilities, Meaux took the idea back to his hometown of Lake Charles. The initial concept would evolve into Waitr, a phone app that connects users to local restaurants, and provides a delivery service that participating restaurants may not already have, thus connecting them to a new set of customers.
“Waitr has opened up an entire new line of business for our participating restaurants,” said Meaux, who serves as CEO. “For many, the app has expanded or added a whole new category of business. One restaurant saw a first-month increase of $35,000 in sales they didn’t have before.”
Waitr delivers another bonus by providing a back-end platform for managing menus, allowing restaurants to change prices, add photos and create daily specials in real-time. Additionally, Waitr gathers data enabling restaurant owners to market more intelligently to customers.
Meaux heard for years that new software ventures could only be successful in well-established tech centers, but he wanted to launch the venture in his hometown. Soon after relocating to Louisiana, he recruited software programmers who would become co-founders. As the business plan took shape, Meaux submitted Waitr for a pitch competition and earned additional attention. The mounting feedback confirmed for Meaux that Waitr’s time had come.
Waitr discovers LED Small Business Services
As Waitr materialized, Meaux brought the company to the Southwest Louisiana Entrepreneurial and Economic Development Center, or SEED Center, an incubator fostering small business growth in the region. At the SEED Center, Meaux and the Waitr team learned of Louisiana Economic Development’s services for small businesses, including LED’s Small and Emerging Business Development Program, or SEBD.
Waitr completed the first round of the program and became SEBD-certified in July 2015. LED’s SEBD Program assists early-stage businesses with specialized industry training, including managerial and technical skills. The experience led Meaux to participate in SEBD Roundtables, a series of peer-to-peer discussions addressing business challenges and identifying best practices. With insights gleaned from the programs, Waitr raised capital, offset costs, and developed new ways of sharing information with other startups, a process that proved instrumental in Waitr’s growth.
At the SEED Center, Waitr utilized the state’s Angel Investor Tax Credit in an initial round of funding, allowing the company to raise $200,000 and recruit the original team members from the Florida entrepreneurial event to join the venture. That investment, coupled with Louisiana’s Digital Interactive Media and Software Development incentive, helped Waitr commercialize its product and hire a business development team.
During the development period, Waitr made serious in-roads in the Lake Charles market, connecting with local restaurants and recruiting delivery-drivers. Soon, the Waitr brand become a familiar site in the city. Poised for expansion in 2015, Waitr began moving into new markets.
LED resources equip Waitr for expansion
For its first expansions, Waitr moved east to Lafayette and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then gradually west into Texas, including The Woodland’s area, Lake Jackson, and even the city-center of Houston. In this initial growth, Waitr partnered with more than 300 restaurants and gained 60,000 regular users, who made use of the app to enjoy their favorite restaurants remotely.
Two years after launching, Waitr employed more than 250 Louisiana-based employees, and the company netted 57,000 orders during 2015. Then, as a credit to the strength of the app and the brand, Waitr saw 55,000 orders in just the first two months of 2016.
Mindful of the need to manage its growth, Waitr used the SEBD Program to work with a web design firm and train company leadership on a website optimized for mobile device users, including new plug-ins and app features.
After successfully using many SEBD resources, Waitr gained entry into LED’s Economic Gardening Initiative in early 2016. Economic Gardening provides customized business intelligence, market research, qualified sales leads and guidance for improved utilization of technology. The program enabled Waitr to focus on digital market research. The research helped guide the company as it selected new geographic markets for expansion.
Those potential markets were mapped utilizing geographic information systems, or GIS, tools, and within six months Waitr identified and launched in thirteen new markets.
As Waitr expands, new operations land in Louisiana
Waitr quickly became a household name in new markets, and soon more communities lobbied Waitr to enter their areas. To facilitate this growth, the company prepared to make a major announcement in one of their first Louisiana markets.
In June 2016, Meaux joined state, regional and local leaders to announce a new 100-job Waitr Technology Operations Center in Lafayette. LED estimated the project would result in another 107 new indirect jobs. The 100 new Waitr jobs would join the company’s 129 positions in the Lake Charles headquarters, and the company announced its delivery staff would grow from 300 to 400.
To support the new operations center, the State of Louisiana offered Waitr the comprehensive workforce solutions of LED FastStart®, the No. 1 state workforce training program in the nation.
“Having been advised that we should look outside of Louisiana to launch a technology venture, I am proud to say that we have proven that theory wrong,” Meaux said. “We haven’t had a shortage of software engineers. We haven’t had a shortage of talent. And I don’t think we will. We anticipate more successful recruiting efforts in a state that makes many tremendous resources available to small businesses, including the Economic Gardening Initiative and the Small and Emerging Business Development Program. These programs have proven essential to our success.”
From a concept, to a small business, to a major employer in Louisiana, Waitr represents a picture-perfect example of how LED’s Small Business Services can foster ideas and support businesses as they expand.
The Waitr facility was completed and officially dedicated in May 2017. Under the steady leadership of Meaux, Waitr had successfully launched in 20 additional cities across the South, and even markets in California, in the time since the operations center was announced in 2016. The company had 1,200 employees nationwide and partnerships with 2,000 restaurants. The Waitr app now has hundreds of thousands of users across five states, and the Waitr brand continues to grow.