LEDA President and CEO Gregg Gothreaux was more than happy to turn the podium over to Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson, who announced to a sold-out Cajundome Convention Center crowd a major local expansion of Lake Charles-based Waitr Inc., an app that connects customers and restaurants. “Leadership of a new generation is arriving,” Pierson told the audience before turning the podium over to the company’s founder, Chris Meaux.
Speaking before the crowd at ABiz’s fifth annual State of the Economy luncheon, Meaux confirmed plans to develop a 100-job technology operations center in Lafayette for his software company, which connects restaurants to diners through a smartphone menu and digital marketing platform for iPhone and Android users. The platform allows users to browse, order and pay for carryout, delivery and even dine-in service directly from their phone.
The jobs created by Waitr’s Lafayette expansion will provide an average annual salary of $55,000, plus benefits, for software engineers and restaurant operations professionals. LED estimates the project will result in the creation of another 107 indirect jobs, for a total of more than 200 new jobs for the area. Waitr currently has 129 full-time employees at its Lake Charles headquarters and 298 part-time workers company-wide. Additionally, Waitr will retain more than 300 delivery positions and create 100 new driver positions through the expansion.
Last year Waitr, which has raised a total of $3.5 million since its inception three years ago, expanded into the Lafayette and Baton Rouge markets, and then broke into Texas — Houston, The Woodlands and Lake Jackson. Meaux says the app will be serving New Orleans in July and Shreveport/Bossier in by September. The company has partnered with 500 restaurants, Meaux said, and more than 100,000 users have downloaded the app. With the new operations center in Lafayette, the company plans to add other markets, including a further expansion into Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Arkansas. Waitr also plans to enter the grocery delivery and restaurant reservation markets.
“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 in a press release issued by LED shortly after the luncheon ended. “We haven’t had a shortage of software engineers. We haven’t had a shortage of talent. And I don’t think we will.”
The company has not yet decided where it will set up shop in Lafayette.
After developing the idea for Waitr during an entrepreneurial idea-sharing event, Meaux established the company in 2013 and launched it in the SEED Center business incubator in Lake Charles in 2014. The company utilized the resources of both LED’s Small and Emerging Business Development Program for managerial and technical assistance training and LEDA's Opportunity Machine. LED’s Economic Gardening Initiative then pointed Waitr on the path to new markets through intensive data research.
Gothreaux saved the best for last in his Thursday speech, which largely centered on the struggles of the local economy in the face of a steep decline in oil prices. “A lot of focus has been put on oil prices,” Gothreaux said, “but it’s important to know that both oil and gas prices shrunk to only a third of what they were before June 2014.”
Gothreaux admitted that this has been his toughest State of the Economy presentation in the past five years. “It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Economic Performance Index [which combines 16 individual local economic indicators into one comprehensive score] has taken quite a hit. At the end of the first quarter, the EPI was 99.3 – down from 112.3 at the same time last year. We are clearly in the orange.”
The LEDA chief said that there has been a 64 percent decrease in Louisiana drilling permits, and year-to-date the state has seen only 220 permits compared with 603 two years ago.
If there is a silver lining, it’s that drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico has only decreased 19 percent since June 2014, he noted. “Because of our geographic proximity to the Gulf, many of our companies are still servicing and providing products to the area.”
Gothreaux effectively contrasted the current downturn with the devastating oil bust of the mid-80s, pointing out how diversification efforts have lessened the blow this time. In the early 1980s, for example, one in every five jobs in Lafayette was in the oil patch; today that’s down to one in every 10 jobs.
He explained that retail sales, which took a 20 percent nosedive from 1985 to 1986, declined only 6 percent from 2014 to 2015 and are likely to drop about 7.2 percent this year. LEDA anticipates 2016 retail sales of $5.6 billion.
Gothreaux also used the platform to push the I-49 Connector, calling it “a chance to right a wrong.”
“In 1963, the Evangeline Thruway sliced through our community like a knife — one side prospered and one side didn’t. I have confidence that the will of the people is there to right that wrong and build a bridge, both figuratively and literally, that will improve the city and help revitalize the Evangeline Corridor so both sides prosper because we are stronger together.”
In the end, Gothreaux stuck with his prediction from last year, saying he still believes the local economy will continue to struggle for the rest of 2016 but should be on the road to recovery beginning in 2017. “Think back to 1986, when the bottom fell out. The Lafayette economy didn’t even see the light of day until 1990, and didn’t really get going until 1994, four to eight years after the collapse. ... The reality is, it’s taken nearly two years for us to get where we are now. It will take at least that same amount of time for us to recoup the ground we’ve lost.”
Companies like Waitr, CGI, Perficient and Enquero will largely assist in the turnaround, Gothreaux emphasized, using the opportunity to call out local tech leaders like Bob Miller, Terry Huval, Doug Menefee, Matt Delcambre, Clay Allen, Bill Fenstermaker, Sandy Kaplan, Jeanie Kreamer and UL President Joe Savoie, all of whom years ago believed that Lafayette could — and should — have a technology-driven economy.
Read Gothreaux's full presentation here and images from the event here.