Restaurants and customers in Baton Rouge, LA are currently holding a weeklong boycott of restaurant delivery platform Waitr. The protests are in response to the company’s recent adjustments to its terms and fee structure deal it has with participating restaurants.
Lake Charles, LA-based Waitr runs a third-party food delivery service similar to those of Uber Eats or DoorDash. The biggest difference in their business models thus far has been around expansion: since its inception in 2015, Waitr has focused on serving smaller U.S. cities, rather than the country’s huge metropolises. The company went public in 2018, the same year it acquired Bite Squad, another delivery service targeting mid-sized markets.
These protests, which started this past Sunday, take a shot at Waitr’s new “performance-based rate structure” for restaurants, which it unveiled a little over a week ago. With this new structure, Waitr takes a higher commission from restaurants with a smaller volume of sales, and a lower one for those restaurants with larger volumes. According to The Advocate, Louisiana’s oldest newspaper, restaurants with monthly food sales above $20,000 will be charged 15 percent per-transaction commission. The commission caps at 25 percent for restaurants with food sales below $1,000, according to a new Master Services Agreement sent to restaurants working with Waitr.
The new terms are set to take effect on August 1. Any restaurant that doesn’t sign the new agreement will be removed from the Waitr platform by July 31, according to The Advocate.
But Waitr could lose restaurant customers over these new terms, and many have already voiced concerns and frustrations over the kind of financial impacts this performance-based structure will have on already thin margins.
“We’re very concerned about Waitr changing their fee structure,” Mitch Rotolo, founder of Rotolo’s Pizzeria in Baton Rouge, told The Advocate. “If their model requires more revenue, they need to ask the customer to pay more for the service, instead of going back to the vendor and squeezing them. That’s unfair.”
Baton Rouge restaurant owner Jim Uridales, who owns Mestizo, told Louisiana news channel WAFB9 that, “Most people would be surprised that most restaurants live in a five to two percent margin on food, so taking that margin away would mean that every transaction would be a loss for us.”
The other side of the picture, of course, is that Waitr is now a public company under pressure to become profitable, which suggests this new fee structure is an effort to prioritize restaurants with higher profiles, inevitably weeding out the smaller businesses in the process. As Rotolo said, it’s unfair. However, it’s also probably one of the only cards Waitr has to play at the moment to boost its margins, even as larger third-party delivery services, most notably DoorDash, continue aggressive expansions into what some days seems like every nook and cranny in the country. And Waitr doesn’t have the $2 billion DoorDash has rasied to help its cause.
According to WAFB9, Waitr released the following statement:
To stand out in the competitive food delivery landscape, Waitr has adopted a performance based rate model where the more our restaurant partners deliver, the lower their rate will be. Our partners will discover this is a far more attractive option than those offered by our competitors. Waitr constantly strives to be the most valuable partner to our restaurants and this structure is reflective of the quality and service we provide.
Back in March of this year, Waitr’s CEO, Chris Meaux, told me, “We believe in the next five to seven years or so, we have a chance to be a significant leader in the space.” He also seemed very optimistic about his company’s approach to growth, which he likened to Walmart’s in the 1960s, when the now-giant retailer slowly expanded from its home state of Arkansas and took decades to even reach the coastal metropolises.
That style of growth seems slow for a public company considering growth is what the market wants to see. But is it also too slow for the tech-driven delivery era, where companies must move as fast as possible to offer as much choice as possible to a user base that isn’t loyal to any one platform? And are smaller restaurants taking the hit for what could ultimately have just been an unfortunately short-sighted business decision by Waitr?
The bigger question, though, is how Waitr’s situation will contribute to the debate around third-party delivery services’ power, which grows louder each week. Grubhub and Uber Eats both partook of a recent oversight hearing in NYC that addressed commission fees for restaurants (which are every bit as high as Waitr’s, by the way), and Grubhub has also come under deep scrutiny for potential cybersquatting and antitrust issues.
One idea, as Rotolo noted, would be to push the burden of cost back onto consumers by raising delivery and/or service fees, though that would spark just as much if not more outcry, most likely.
Waitr laid off 20 employees at the end of June in an effort to get rid of redundancies from the Bite Squad acquisition. This week’s protests, however they end, won’t help the company’s reputation, which it can’t afford to lose as other third-party players continue their march into the mid-sized markets.