Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Column: Waitr’s undelivered promise

"Waitr Day" was declared to celebrate the company's arrival in Downtown Lafayette. Photo by Allison DeHart

ASAP, the restaurant delivery startup formerly known as Waitr, looks to be dead. It filed for bankruptcy liquidation this week after quietly ceasing operations last week.

This news isn’t surprising. In January 2023, the company was delisted from Nasdaq because its stock price had dropped too low. Midway through last year, it outsourced its delivery operations to UberEats. Last month UberEats ended that partnership, leaving ASAP a delivery service without the ability to deliver anything.

ASAP’s website says “Goodbye for Now,” suggesting it may have some second life in the works. But when it comes to Waitr forming the bedrock for the next generation of Lafayette’s tech economy, that dream is dead.

When Waitr first moved to town, I honestly wasn’t all that excited. It wasn’t the first restaurant delivery startup. And it didn’t seem to offer that much of a unique value proposition. I assumed it was just another me-too service that would fade away quickly.

I was wrong. Instead of fading away, the company grew, and grew, and grew — hiring thousands of drivers, hundreds of office workers, and seemingly dozens of my friends. Its model of being first-movers in second and third tier markets that didn’t have much delivery competition was working.

Then it landed a deal with billionaire Tilman Fertitta, who gave it $300 million to keep growing. Waitr used that capital to buy another established food delivery company, Bite Squad. And before you knew it, Waitr’s officials were ringing the bell in New York City to celebrate going public.

At its peak, Waitr’s stock was worth almost a billion dollars. And a good amount of that stock was owned by investors, executives, and employees based in South Louisiana who were holding options. There were dozens if not hundreds of Waitr paper millionaires.

It’s impossible to overstate what that success should have meant for Lafayette. We finally had a tech startup that didn’t have to leave Louisiana to grow. That was committed to staying. That was giving local talent new opportunities to gain experience and develop new skills. That was generating hundreds of millions of local wealth. Giving local investors a taste of what success looks like in the high-risk, high-reward world of tech startup investments.

When Waitr was blowing and going, I assumed its success was going to create an upswell of Waitr-inspired follow-on startups. Investors and employees had more cash to invest and an appetite for taking risks. And some of our community’s best and brightest were working together, creating opportunities for serendipity to hit and new ideas to be discovered and chased after.

It seemed like this was finally going to be Lafayette’s opportunity to catalyze all of our natural community resources into establishing tech startups as a significant contributor to our local economy.

These are the kinds of scenarios that can literally lead to the creation of billions of dollars in new revenue, new salaries and new wealth. Having a vibrant economy often comes down to having successes like this occur by people who happen to decide to want to live in your community. And they’re so important because they can bring a lot of new money into the local economy.

But it wasn’t meant to be. More stories may be told in the future of what really went wrong at Waitr. But my take is that it all came down to one thing: hubris.

Waitr simply grew too fast, too recklessly, without enough planning, and without enough understanding of how to manage risk. What’s tragic is that it got so close to being a big success that could have reverberated throughout Lafayette’s economy for decades to come.

Instead, Lafayette’s left with little to show for all this hoopla. All those jobs are gone. All that paper wealth in stock and options is gone unless you cashed out early. All that potential energy that I was counting on to drive economic activity has evaporated.

Though that’s not entirely true. Because despite its fall from grace, Waitr did have a net positive impact on our community.

A bunch of people got a lot of great experience working for a technology startup and have parlayed that into other good jobs either working remotely for other startups or locally for companies like CGI. Two of my favorite hires at Techneaux — a local technology company I’m part owner of — are former Waitr directors.

And I’m hopeful that despite Waitr crashing and burning, it at least showed local investors that these kinds of large-scale successes are possible even in a second-tier market like Lafayette. Remember: Some number of investors got in when Waitr was only worth a few million bucks. So there’s the potential that they could have realized roughly 100x returns on their initial investments.

In a post-pandemic world where remote work is the norm, Lafayette can be home to a bunch of successful technology startups so long as we believe it’s still possible and make efforts to achieve this dream.

Even though Waitr itself was not the success many of us hoped for, its remains may serve as the feedstock for a brighter future. Lafayette is better off for having been through the Waitr experience, even if the company didn’t deliver on its potential.