Breakfast and brunch is a tasty, and big, business. A national leader in the industry has called the region home for nearly 35 years — and now it’s growing at a rapid-fire rate.

by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor, East County Observer

In national restaurant circles, First Watch is a rock star. The latest accolade: Nation’s Restaurant News named the company — credited with popularizing the concept of being open only for breakfast and lunch — the second-fastest growing restaurant chain nationwide, ranked by sales growth. The top 10 includes Chick-fil-A, Tropical Smoothie Café and the No. 1 chain, Shake Shack. First Watch grew sales 48.55% in 2019, from $354 million in 2018 to $525.8 million.

More praise: In a survey from employee engagement company Glassdoor, First Watch made the top 10 among all brands nationally in three categories: percentage of employees who would recommend their job to a friend, percentage of employees with a positive business outlook and CEO approval ratings.

Yet First Watch, on a corporate level at least, is often anonymous in its hometown — east Manatee County.

Now in a headquarters in a University Park office complex, off Cooper Creek Boulevard, First Watch was previously located in an office in a Lakewood Ranch corporate park. It’s been based in the area since 1986, soon after co-founders Ken Pendery and John Sullivan opened the first First Watch, in California, in 1983. Some 150 people work in the corporate office, lending support to the company’s 395 First Watch locations spread through nearly 30 states.

First Watch is expected to move into its new headquarters, visible from Interstate 75 between State Road 70 and University Parkway, at the end of 2020.

“I meet people around here all the time who have no idea how big we are or that we even have our headquarters here,” says First Watch President and CEO Chris Tomasso, a Sarasota native who has been with the company since 2006. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Tomasso adds, given the company’s ethos aren’t flashy but instead based on the golden rule principle and the motto “You first.”

First Watch is on the cusp of getting more local notoriety with a new headquarters project. Under construction now behind its current space, the company’s new home office is planned as a two-story, 39,000-square-foot complex. It will include a workout center with locker rooms, a test kitchen and classroom facilities for the company’s management center. The company, Tomasso says, is planning to move into it at the end of the year, and the entire project “further entrenches us in the market here.”

Company officials also say the project will lead to at least 85 new jobs, with an expected average annual salary of $82,000. Manatee County commissioners, in return for the jobs, approved a performance-based package of incentives and impact fee reductions for First Watch worth about $390,000. The value of having a national brand with a corporate headquarters in town is high, Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. CEO Sharon Hillstrom says, and comes with a lot of intangibles. “When you land or have a headquarters, that’s like the golden egg,” Hillstrom says. “They could go anywhere they want, but they chose to stay here. That really helps our cause as a business destination.”


Toast to growth

First Watch grew into its industry leadership role slowly at first and then, over the past decade, like a comet. When Tomasso joined the company 14 years ago, after marketing stints at the Hard Rock Café and Cracker Barrel, it had 60 restaurants in nine states and $60 million a year in sales. It took 20 years to get to that level. Since then, fueled by investments from private equity firms that led to acquisitions, First Watch has grown its restaurant count more than fivefold.

First Watch introduced some alcoholic drinks in June at some Sarasota-area locations.

The recipe behind First Watch’s sustained success, executives say, includes two separate but equally important ingredients: a menu that changes to adapt to and stay ahead of trends and an entrepreneurial culture where employees, particularly store managers, are trusted to make decisions.

On food and drinks, a big change took place in June, when First Watch debuted alcohol, from traditional mimosas to a Million Dollar Bloody Mary. The latter includes gluten-free vodka, house-made bloody mary mix and a strip of First Watch’s Million Dollar Bacon. In recent years, First Watch has also added recently popularized items to the menu, such as quinoa power bowls and avocado toast, while keeping traditional favorites, such as pancakes and omelets.

On culture, meanwhile, the turbulent spring and summer has been a time for First Watch to shine in the face of some difficult coronavirus pandemic challenges. The pandemic, including a temporary closure of its 309 nonfranchised locations, was a rough patch, but the company took a forward-thinking approach on other issues. Notably, on social media, it supported the Black Lives Matter movement with multiple posts, including one on Facebook that had more than 700 combined comments and shares. Yet beyond buzz, Tomasso says it was just as important to him that First Watch’s employees, more than 8,000 people, know the company supports them.

“You want your employees to be proud of the company they work for,” he says. “A lot of the positions we are taking have to do with being a good person — it’s really hard to argue with the ideas of equality and diversity.

“One of the things we’ve been saying around here is we have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That allows us to see and hear places where we can improve.”