With about 280 partner restaurants, Baton Rouge has quickly become the largest of the 18 markets Waitr serves across four states. Here, Ethan Boudreaux picks up an order at Red Zeppelin Pizza. Photography by Brian Baiamonte
When Hammond-based Your Mom’s Restaurant opened in Baton Rouge on West Lee Drive in 2015, its straightforward lineup of casual eats and its full bar helped attract streams of regulars from nearby neighborhoods and the LSU community.
But lately, some of Your Mom’s most loyal customers never even cross its threshold, thanks to the home delivery app Waitr.
Customers who don’t want to fight traffic, but who find themselves craving the spot’s debris fries or jalapeño ranch burgers, are logging onto the app and clicking their way to dinner. Pre-loaded credit card and delivery information eliminates the need to call the restaurant, or to engage in a cash transaction with the driver.
“We think it’s a great concept,” says Your Mom’s owner Trent Fresina, who began working with Waitr about eight months ago. “We’ve seen about a 10 percent increase in to-go sales.”
A tech startup that first launched in Lake Charles in late 2015, Waitr has seen impressive early growth in and outside of south Louisiana, says founder and CEO Chris Meaux. The company provides restaurants a home delivery infrastructure, which can bring substantial new sales while not tying up tables. Restaurants pay a fee per transaction to Waitr. Customers order directly through the app, accessing menus that are priced the same as dining in. The only additional customer fee is a $5 delivery charge and an optional driver tip.
“I’ve averaged $6,000 a month in new to-go orders from Waitr since July,” says Mestizo Louisiana Mexican Cuisine owner and chef Jim Urdiales, who has added higher quality to-go packaging as a result of the uptick. “They’re more small orders than big orders, but I prefer that to sitting at a table for an hour. It’s all about convenience.”
Now in just its second full year of operation, Waitr is operating in 18 cities across four states, with about two new cities signing on each month. In 2015, the company logged a total of 57,000 customer orders. Today, Waitr tallies 60,000 orders a week across its markets.
“We’ve been on a tear,” says Meaux. “We’ve seen 15 to 20 percent month-over-month growth. Things haven’t slowed down in over a year.”
Earlier this year, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees injected some star power and money into the venture, becoming the lead investor in a $10 million capital infusion that will help the company build new systems to improve customer service and workflow, says Meaux. Waitr plans to roll out a few new features soon, but also wants to work out kinks including longer than acceptable delivery times and occasional order errors.
In one big gaffe this year, the company was overwhelmed across its markets with orders on Valentine’s Day, failing to anticipate the number of diners who would use the service on a Tuesday night—normally one of the slowest nights of the week for home delivery. It proved a humbling moment for the young startup. Meaux issued a public apology to Waitr customers and partner restaurants, and refunds were offered to customers in some cases, with Waitr taking the financial hit. Meaux declined to reveal how much his company lost due to the delays, but pledged Waitr would learn from the experience and do better in the future.
“We were actually looking for some type of food delivery service to push our to-go sales, and when we found out about Waitr, it was a no-brainer on our end,” —Claire Dugas, Walk-On’s Enterprises local store marketing director
Convenience is the watchword of today’s consumer, and that’s being demonstrated clearly in Waitr’s local growth. About 280 Baton Rouge restaurants had enrolled as of late March, making the Capital City Waitr’s largest market. Several factors contribute to this, Meaux believes. Busy families are pressed for time and want to avoid getting out in traffic. Moreover, Baton Rouge is a college town, and its tens of thousands of students are early adapters of apps that make life easier. Finally, Meaux says Baton Rouge attracts a lot of in-state business and leisure travel from cities that also feature Waitr.
“People from Lafayette, another one of our cities, visit Baton Rouge every day, and a lot of them are using Waitr to discover new restaurants,” he says. “The fact that we’re in so many different markets means we’re able to bring restaurants to new customers they would not have gotten before.”
Waitr’s internal analysis shows that every time a user places an order on Waitr, he or she is using it eight times more often to browse and discover other restaurants, Meaux says. Part of the package Waitr offers restaurants is comprehensive food photography, which means an appealing image of each menu item is in full view of anyone using the app to peruse dining options.
In fact, placing a multitude of choices in front of users is one of Waitr’s most appealing features. Take out used to mean pizza delivery. Now it also means Vietnamese pho and shrimp po-boys.
“Parents are going out for date night, but instead of ordering a pizza for the kids, they’re ordering all sorts of different things on Waitr,” says Walk-On’s Enterprises Local Store Marketing Director Claire Dugas. Seven of Walk-On’s 11 locations now feature Waitr, says Dugas. The four that do not, she adds, are in markets where Waitr has not yet arrived.
“We were actually looking for some type of food delivery service to push our to-go sales, and when we found out about Waitr, it was a no-brainer on our end,” Dugas says. “We felt like they could execute it in a way that worked for us.”
Walk-On’s has seen at least a 10% increase in sales as a result of Waitr, says Dugas. Operationally, the restaurant has tightened its to-go procedures to absorb the additional activity, including ordering higher quality to-go packaging and training managers to ensure orders are prepared consistent with a driver’s arrival. At the end of the day, says Walk-On’s Bistreaux and Bar Director of Marketing Anya Hudnall, the patron placing the order is a customer of the restaurant, which means food needs to arrive hot and fresh.
“We’re thrilled to be able to send our brand into people’s homes,” she says. “But we want to make sure it arrives like it should.”
Meaux agrees. The company plans to double its number of drivers in Baton Rouge over the next year, and training each of them in how to transport orders correctly is part of the onboarding process, he says.
“At the end of the day, we’re representing the restaurant, so if food arrives cold, we’ll do what we need to do to make it right,” Meaux says. “There’s no better way to grow business than by having satisfied customers.
To-go tipping: What are the rules?
Home delivery from restaurants is becoming commonplace in many markets nationwide, thanks a growing number of apps that make it easy for diners to click and order from their favorite eateries. But where does that leave tipping? Should drivers be tipped like servers?
According to etiquette storehouse The Emily Post Institute, the acceptable tip range for home delivery is 10% to 15% of the bill. Pizza delivery fetches less. The institute declares that tip range is $2 to $5, “depending on the size of the order and difficulty of delivery.” And for traditional take-out, where the consumer is the one retrieving the order, there’s no obligation for tipping, according to the institute. The same is true for tip jars. The institute recommends 15% to 20% for sit-down service.
When a user places an order with Waitr, the final step is a tipping option in which the default amount is set at 20%.
“Our drivers are going out in all kinds of conditions to get our customers their orders,” says Waitr founder and CEO Chris Meaux, a former restaurateur. “We’d like to see them tipped well.”
Consumers can adjust the tip higher or lower, but if you go lower, the smiling emoticon associated with 20% starts to frown, a subtle prod to tip within a certain range. Meaux acknowledges that he’s asking customers to commit a tip before an order arrives, but more tips for his drivers mean better stability in his labor pool. According to the Waitr website, Waitr drivers are paid an average of $12 to $15 per hour—including tips.