After standing by while an out-of-town ride-hailing service swept in and began delivering king cakes in his hometown, Joel Dondis had an idea.
Dondis, who owns the gelato and sweet shop Sucré, approached Syed Kazmi, president of United Cab Co., about working together on their own king cake on-demand operation.
In the past, Dondis has relied on couriers to deliver the shop’s king cakes, chocolates and macaroons throughout the city. But it was an expensive proposition.
Earlier this month, Uber delivered king cakes from Haydel’s Bakery to local smartphone users to mark the start of the Carnival season.
That got Dondis thinking. He wondered how United, the city’s largest cab provider, was getting by since New Orleans officials opened the door last year to new competition from app-based ride-hailing services like Uber.
“It became less about the king cakes. I became fascinated with the whole business problem,” he said. “We’ll hopefully be helping out a company who could use the help.”
If it catches on, the deliveries may provide some financial lift to United’s drivers, who are feeling pinched by Uber.
After new city-imposed regulations took effect requiring cab owners to buy new equipment and in many cases new vehicles, Kazmi complains that Uber is being allowed to enter the local market and undercut taxi prices.
With Mardi Gras only weeks away, Kazmi can’t remember a time when business was so slow. It’s down almost 50 percent in recent months, he said, and about a quarter of his cabs are parked.
“This is the time of the year when our fleet is 100 percent occupied with drivers in the city,” he said. “Mardi Gras is two weeks away, and we have cabs parked in the garage.”
Since last week, United has handled a few dozen Sucré orders. In a way, the combined efforts with Sucré are reminiscent of Drizly, a national company that launched its New Orleans service last year, delivering beer, wine and mixers to customers who place orders with a smartphone or computer.
With Sucré, customers place an order by calling the company’s Magazine Street location.
Orders are delivered within 90 minutes. Delivery is $15, which goes to the driver. The delivery territory, which includes the Central Business District and much of Uptown, reaches from Canal Street to Calhoun Street, between South Claiborne Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street.
There’s no minimum order requirement. A king cake costs $20.
“If it puts a few extra dollars in their pocket and it helps us, that’s great,” Dondis said.
Last summer, Uber worked with Sucré to deliver gelato to customers looking to beat the summer heat. All told, Sucré dished out about 2,000 servings. Between its three locations, Dondis said they usually serve between 1,500 to 4,500 cups each day.
Dondis is expecting his delivery service may appeal most to people ordering a king cake for work.
“It’ll be convenient for them, and it’ll help us deliver a better service,” he said.
Across the city, cab operators are bemoaning new competition from Uber.
Even though Coleman Cab Co. also offers an app to allow customers to hail a ride from their phone, those orders were down by one-third in recent months, according to operator Jason Coleman.
“We are being pushed out of the industry by low-cutting fares. It’s like Wal-Mart versus a small mom-and-pop,” Coleman said. “We’re basically going against a billion-dollar international company.”
Still, Coleman isn’t convinced that delivering king cakes is going to provide the shot-in-the-arm that the taxi industry needs.
“It’s just PR,” he said. “I’m fine with PR. It’s just not my thing.”
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.