First Watch avocado toast.
First Watch

First Watch created a R.I.S.E (Race Inclusion & Support Exchange) Advisory Council.

First Watch Isn’t OK Being Quiet Anymore

The breakfast chain is introducing a ‘7 Steps Toward Change’ platform built around diversity and inclusion, and raising awareness throughout the industry.

Roughly three months ago, First Watch broke character. Social unrest crisscrossed America in the wake of George Floyd’s death, with protests and riots affecting businesses and communities already strapped by COVID-19.   

CEO Chris Tomasso didn’t want to sit idle. Referencing a now-infamous Michael Jordan quote from the 1990 North Carolina Senate race, where Jordan quipped “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” First Watch got on the front-foot.

“I would say, for really one of the first times in the history of our organization, we took a stand and we put something out there,” Tomasso says of the 37-year-old brand. “And we were blown away by the response from our employees.”

First Watch crafted a statement that, among other things, said, “silent support is not enough. Promoting diversity is not enough. The only ‘enough’ that will lead our country to true equality requires a deep commitment to an anti-racism ethos.”


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Yet while employees lauded the take, Tomasso says, they kept asking another question—what was First Watch going to do?

For an answer, the company flipped the challenge around, and started listening.

First Watch shared with FSR an exclusive look at its #BeABetterHuman initiative, which is designed to build upon, support, and grow diversity throughout the organization.

Core is a “7 Steps Toward Change,” platform starting with a R.I.S.E. (Race Inclusion & Support Exchange) Advisory Council that speaks directly to First Watch's leadership on how the company can advance diversity and inclusion programs, internally and externally.

“Working with Laura Sorenson, our chief people officer, and some other folks here, we went to work on a very deliberate program that goes beyond hiring a diversity officer per se,” Tomasso says. “But some things that were very real, tangible, and meant something to our employees and then hopefully to our society in general.”

First Watch put the council together almost immediately after its statement. Regional leaders reached out to employees. One GM contacted Tomasso personally to discuss First Watch’s stance, and Tomasso asked if he would like to continue being a voice in the field and join. He did.

The council filled out as follows: Director of Restaurant Technology, Bobby Baker; Director of Operations, David Stillis; and GMs Jabbar Salaah (Cincinnati, Ohio), Nicole Smith (Houston, Texas), Gayle Hutton (Bowie, Maryland), Sterling Rogers (Cleveland, Ohio), Tim Thompson (Fairfax, Virginia) and John Worthington (Boca Raton, Florida).

Within two weeks, the sides were talking. At the end of each council member’s one-year term, a $1,000 donation will be made in their name to a local charity of their choice that supports the Black community.

“Look, it’s one thing to write checks for scholarships and things like that, which we’re doing,” CEO Chris Tomasso says. “But we really felt like to make an impact you have to do things like this. … We’re trying to affect change here.”

One of the tangible things the council developed at First Watch was a voluntary, live leadership training web series the chain rolled across six parts. It began in late July and had “hundreds and hundreds” of attendees each Wednesday, when they’d air at 4 and 6 p.m.

“Really, what it was, was it gave everybody a safe place to have these kinds of discussions and hear from their peers about what they experienced,” Tomasso says. “And also learn some things about microaggressions and unconscious bias and handling difficult situations.”

To encourage participation, employees who completed the entire series were recognized with a $250 donation, in their honor, awarded to the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.

Tomasso says First Watch expects that donation to be in the neighborhood of $50,000.

Inside First Watch, the experience was eye-opening, Tomasso says. Council members shared “painful to hear” personal stories.

One employee spoke about getting approached by authorities, on their own lawn, for being outside at 5:30 a.m., preparing to go to work. Another mentioned the bias they face day-to-day as a minority GM. Some customers won’t acknowledge the position, uniform or not, and ask for the “real manager.”

“One of the things we said, and we prefaced this with, everybody through the bias training and the webinars and things, is that we all had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and those stories are uncomfortable,” Tomasso says.

First Watch also created the “R.I.S.E. Mentorship Program,” where executives partner with employees from different cultural backgrounds to help them advance through society, and First Watch, if that’s their choice. They apply and get paired with a senior executive for a six-month development track.

“Look, it’s one thing to write checks for scholarships and things like that, which we’re doing,” Tomasso says. “But we really felt like to make an impact you have to do things like this. … We’re trying to affect change here.”

Some other steps in First Watch’s plan:

The chain established first-generation scholarships in partnership with the United Negro College Fund and HCBUs Howard University and Spelman College. Application details for the scholarship, which will total $10,000 and $25,000 respectively, are forthcoming.

First Watch invested in unconscious bias training for all employees. It introduced the program July at the restaurant level and the company’s home office.

In tandem with the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management, First Watch created a R.I.S.E Emerging Leaders Scholarship, which will award a full, four-year scholarship to a qualified company employee within the Black community. The first recipient will begin classes in fall 2021. First Watch also offers free online high school diplomas to employees.

Lastly, First Watch, as part of the partnership with HBCUs, is connecting regional talent directors with school administrators to identify candidates for employment to increase diversity throughout First Watch’s company ladder. The brand said it “understands that people of color receive more interview opportunities and are employed at a higher rate when ‘ban-the-box’ policies are implemented, and it will continue to ban the previous criminal history box on employment applications in all states, rather than just in the three states that require it.”

“We want people to be proud of where they work,” Tomasso says. “And we’re hearing a lot of that through these programs, and I think that pride is what instills loyalty. And loyalty instills longevity.”

First Watch

First Watch will have all of its restaurants open with some form of dine-in service by next week.

Getting back to the top

First Watch was arguably the hottest full-service chain in America heading into 2020. At 24.1 percent year-over-year unit growth, the concept trailed only Cooper’s Hawk in this year’s FSR 50. However, Cooper’s Hawk totaled 46 restaurants at 2019’s close (up from 34). First Watch had 365 units after net growth of 71 locations, from 2018 to 2019. Revenue also upped to $500 million from $400 million and average-unit volumes increased to $1.517 million from $1.501 million.

Of the 50 highest-grossing sit-down chains, nobody came close to that 71 figure. In fact, there wasn’t a single chain outside of First Watch to eclipse the teens in terms of net-unit expansion.

Black Bear Diner, the closest, added 18 restaurants from 120 to 138.

Even on the quick-service side, 71 would slot First Watch 12th overall just behind Panda Express and 12 restaurants ahead of Shake Shake.

But, understandably, it’s been a challenging few months for First Watch. On Easter Sunday, the chain decided to temporarily close its entire company footprint. No to-go or delivery.

Of the brand's current 399 restaurants (further proof how fast it's growing), 316, or 80 percent are company-owned, and 83, or 20 percent, are franchised.

By the end of this week, though, Tomasso says every restaurant will be back on line for in-restaurant and off-premises business. New Jersey and Florida’s Dade County were the final chips to fall in the indoor dining conversation.

The previous week (before those updates were announced), only seven of the company’s units were operating as off-premises-only.

Tomasso says First Watch has “held onto it and then some,” when it comes to carryout, delivery, and to-go. Before COVID-19, the only off-premises order at First Watch was taken over the phone. It was really defined as customers bringing home meals they couldn’t finish.

The chain stood up online ordering and third-party delivery in a matter of days at the pandemic’s outset. Before deciding to close company locations, off-premises as a relative percent of sales jumped 300 percent.

First Watch then used the time it was shuttered to bulk up systems, partnering with Olo to develop functionality and build a user interface.  

In June, it announced a partnership with waitlist and table management system Wisely. Now, as restaurants reopened, customers could make dine-in reservations on First Watch’s waitlist tool, active on the chain’s app, website, and Google.

The partnership also enabled First Watch employees to manage the wait for curbside pickup and dine-in from Wisely’s app at the host stand, and to capture individual customer preferences. Data runs into Wisely’s CRM, giving First Watch the insights needed to trigger or automate personalized campaigns. Wisely deploys data collected from Olo to populate the CRM.

“Rolling out online ordering in a matter of days at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic proved that our teams and partners were up for any challenge,” Matt Eisenacher, SVP of brand strategy and innovation, said at the time.