With millions in fresh new capital care of Drew Brees, Waitr’s rapid expansion poses a healthy stimulus for Lafayette’s long-burgeoning tech ecosystem. That’s good news for a city still in a lingering oil slump.
Earlier this year, Waitr moved out of its temporary offices inside LEDA’s Opportunity Machine to a colorful, tech-savvy suite — complete with nap pods, a gym and a ping-pong table — inside the Daily Advertiser building and has since ramped up hiring in its software engineering department. The company currently employs 20 software engineers, virtually all of them in the new permanent Lafayette offices, and is in process of hiring four more. CEO Chris Meaux anticipates that the software development team will continue to see significant growth as the company expands.
While Waitr is currently moving into two markets each month, Meaux says a substantial portion of the company’s growth, fueled in large part by a $10 million investment from a Brees-led consortium, will be focused in Lafayette — given the tech resources required to support its expansion.
Growth like that can have a cascading impact for the city’s ongoing quest to build a viable tech industry. Job opportunities at start-ups like Waitr or international powerhouses like CGI give young engineers educated in Lafayette a reason to stay here, rather than flee to bigger, more conventional tech markets like Austin or San Francisco.
“We’re employing people in Louisiana, and that’s what matters to me. It’s great to be employing a lot of people in Acadiana where I grew up,” Meaux says. “When I first approached venture capitalists, they told me you’ve got to move to Silicon Valley or Austin in order to hire enough software engineers. Right here in Lafayette, we can hire all the software engineers we need. There are three other companies hiring, developing [and] training software engineers just like us, and we’re expanding the software engineering base by doing that.”
At a corporate level, Waitr has shown a commitment to Lafayette. All five of the Lake Charles-born company’s founding team members are either now located in Lafayette or in process of relocating here, which puts the city in favorable proximity to the company’s corporate development.
Chief Operating Officer Bob Miller, who joined Waitr in August of last year, is a Lafayette native and current resident. Chief Marketing Officer Sonny Mayugba is based in Sacramento. Mayugba came on board after Waitr acquired his own app-based dining app, Requested, last year. Waitr’s far-flung executives, busy opening and managing operations throughout the company’s southeastern empire, use a rental house in Lafayette as a stopover base of operations.
To be sure, Waitr’s expansions are not confined to Lafayette. Meaux expects both of the company’s hubs, in Lake Charles and Lafayette, to continue significant employment growth in the future. Both home cities, which were the app-based delivery company’s first two operating markets, have more than 100 corporate employees, excluding drivers.
As Waitr moves, the company installs corporate employees in every new market to handle on-the-ground operations. Over the last few months Baton Rouge has surpassed Lafayette as the company’s largest single consumer market, measured by orders and number of restaurant partners.
Meaux views Waitr as a Louisiana-first company, not necessarily one headquartered in either Lafayette or Lake Charles.
Maintaining significant technical operations in both cities is a must for the company, says Meaux, to forestall service problems due to losses of power or web service.
Put simply, the company needs geographic diversity to stay in business.
“It’s impossible to do it in one location. You can’t have the redundancies that we have to have in one location, both the human redundancies and the technology redundancies,” he says. “If the internet gets cut to this [Lafayette office] building, I’m dead.”
Meaux’s state-oriented ambitions, namely to one day be one of the state’s largest employers, stem from a well-documented loyalty to Louisiana. A Crowley native, Meaux himself spent 20 years in corporate tech in Dallas/Ft. Worth and in California before returning to Louisiana in 2011 to help run an indoor football team. He believes Waitr proves Louisiana’s competitive viability for emerging tech companies.
Waitr is currently tackling an 80-market list generated through a partnership with Louisiana Economic Development. Using demographic metrics researched by LED in 222 cities, Waitr has continued on a methodical expansion eastward and westward in a 12-state regional market. Last month, the company rolled out official services in Longview, Texas, and Gulfport, Miss., with openings in Alexandria, La., and Birmingham, Ala., expected later in May. That will put Waitr in more than 20 cities in four states.
“Lafayette is a great place or us to grow, and we’ll probably grow here more than anywhere, but it’s not the only place we’re going to grow,” Meaux says. “We’re going to grow everywhere.”