As executives at Minneapolis-based Bite Squad finalized selling the company to rival Waitr Holdings this winter, its staffers tried to beat Waitr in one last place — Jackson, Tenn.
The companies created the biggest combination of app-based food-delivery services yet, a $321 million deal that merged operations across 27 states. They overlapped in just five and, for the most part, had their own turf: Bite Squad in the north and Waitr in the south. For the teams in both firms who had become experts in rapid expansion, Jackson, a city of 70,000 between Memphis and Nashville, became a final battleground.
“We both started signing up restaurants there just before the merger,” said Craig Key, Bite Squad’s top marketer who is now head of growth for the combined firm, which kept the name Waitr Holdings. “Then we launched. Then we closed the deal. Then they launched.”
Speed is vital for drivers who deliver food. But at the moment, it’s critical throughout the business as Waitr and Bite Squad try to survive among competitors that are far larger. Just last week, Amazon.com Inc. said it would exit the business after four years of battling them and other firms like DoorDash, Grubhub, Postmates and Uber Eats.
Waitr announced in early December that it would buy Bite Squad and closed the deal just six weeks later. Since then, the firms merged executive teams, reported their first financial results together and started carving out territories.
In the Twin Cities, the deal represented the biggest exit event this decade for a local tech startup.
Kian Salehi, who started Bite Squad in 2012 and served as chief executive, recently stepped away from the day-to-day operations after helping along the early work of integrating the firms.
The combined firm is led by Chris Meaux, who started Waitr in 2014 in Lake Charles, La., and attracted Texas billionaire Tilman Fertitta to buy it last year.
Fertitta also owns Landry’s Inc., operator of Golden Nugget casinos and restaurant chains like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Rainforest Cafe. He formed a special-purpose investment firm, listed it on the stock market and used proceeds from the IPO to buy Waitr.
After downplaying the role of food-delivery firms for several years, Fertitta saw in Waitr a chance to join the fast-growing segment in a way that stood apart from giants backed chiefly by Silicon Valley investors. Waitr and Bite Squad veered away from those firms by focusing on smaller markets and hiring drivers directly rather than relying on gig-style freelancers.
Though Bite Squad started in Minneapolis and quickly entered a handful of other large cities, it jumped into smaller markets early.
With infusions of capital from Brightstone Venture Capital of Minneapolis in 2015 and Bregal Sagemount of New York in 2017, Bite Squad bought dozens of local app-based delivery firms across the country.
With each one, it modified its app, expanded its order-monitoring system, put drivers on the payroll and deployed fleets of green and white Priuses.
Waitr, meanwhile, sprung from Lake Charles and spread throughout the southern U.S. with backing chiefly from investors in Louisiana. Prospective backers elsewhere in the country prodded Meaux to move the firm to either coast believing he would have an easier time attracting talent and staging an exit. He refused and built Waitr to a value of $308 million when Fertitta bought it.
“Waitr and Bite Squad had been friendly for a long time,” said Kyle Hale, Bite Squad’s former No. 2 executive who is now chief development officer for Waitr. “We got to the same order volume and revenue. We did it differently but we got to the same spot. If we combined, we thought we could be a real force and have access to capital in the markets as a public company.”
For the first three months of the year — the first quarter with the companies combined — Waitr Holdings reported revenue of $48 million and an adjusted loss of $9.9 million. Sales grew 78%, adjusted as if Waitr and Bite Squad were together for the full quarter and the same one a year earlier.
Grubhub and DoorDash now lead third-party food deliveries nationally, each with about 30% of the industry’s transactions in April, according to Second Measure, a San Mateo, Calif., research firm that studies credit card data.
Waitr with Bite Squad has a single-digit market share, trailing Uber Eats at 22% and Postmates at 10%. Waitr and Bite Squad have the most loyal customers, the transaction data showed, a reflection of their focus on service quality and dominance in places where there is relatively less competition.
“We look at a market like Fargo and we see maybe Uber is there, but they launch with McDonald’s,” Key said. “We go to every restaurant, we shake their hands and form partnerships with 40, 50 places before we launch. That multiplier effect on our network allows us to do much better than the competition.”
As Bite Squad and Waitr started to join, employees compared experiences and processes and, said the Bite Squad executives, exhibited some firmness about the way they had done things.
“Both sides feel real ownership of what we’ve built,” Key said. “On both sides, there had never been a time when we weren’t growing like crazy.”
But differences began to shine through that allowed the two firms to make choices. For instance, when entering a new city, Bite Squad tended to focus on driving customers to use a loyalty feature called “Unlimited,” which substitutes a small monthly fee for delivery charges on short-distance orders. Waitr, meanwhile, focused on getting people to download its app.
“We started to do both things,” Hale said. “As we get to know each other better and mesh fibers, you start to realize all that matters is that we do it the right way.”
Both companies operate dispatch centers that monitor the flow of orders and drivers. Software judges when a driver can reach a restaurant and alerts the restaurant to the order based on the time a driver can meet it.
In Minneapolis, the dispatch group at Bite Squad works from about 7 a.m. (it started breakfast deliveries in the Twin Cities in April) to about 3 a.m., winding down after the dinner rush in Honolulu. They have learned the geographies of dozens of cities and smaller towns across the country.
“You get interesting things like this where you have a river that cuts the city in half and you have to know there’s only a bridge here and a bridge here,” dispatcher Jeff Gibson said, pointing to a map of Little Rock, Ark., on one of his six monitors.
Bite Squad routinely studied performance measurements in its delivery system, but Waitr had built a team of data analytics experts to uncover other efficiencies. Hale said that had Bite Squad continued independently, it would have been more focused on market expansion than looking at data to improve existing operations and markets.
“The potential in our existing markets is so huge and so untapped,” he said. “When you look at orders per capita in a certain city, we still have so much upside.”
Ahead for the company is the difficult decision of whether to unite under one brand. Meaux has said in interviews that he would like the word Waitr to become a verb akin to Kleenex or Google. But even Grubhub has had difficulty uniting all its acquisitions under its name and has five other brands.
For now, Waitr and Bite Squad are moving forward with separate brands and picking markets based in part on the footprint that existed before the merger. In the past month, staffers from Waitr’s office in Lake Charles and Bite Squad’s in Minneapolis traveled to jointly launch service in Panama City, Fla., and Duluth. They used the Bite Squad brand in both places.
In Jackson, the two operations directly competed for several weeks after the merger closed. Waitr pulled ahead quickly and the choice became obvious, executives said.
“They really dwarfed us in sales,” Key said, attributing the difference to Waitr’s initial restaurant sign-up activity in Jackson. “We had talent and drivers and some restaurants they didn’t have. So we just flipped the brand hat.”