Not even a global pandemic could disrupt the trajectory of America’s fastest-growing full-service brand, but CEO Chris Tomasso still sees potential to take the brand further than it has ever gone.

In recent years, First Watch has followed a trajectory not unlike a rocket ship: It has covered much ground at a breakneck pace while maintaining a smooth flight and strong structural integrity. At least this is how Chris Tomasso views the brand and, in turn, his role as CEO.

The 15-year brand veteran started as First Watch’s chief marketing officer before becoming president and eventually chief executive. By his estimation, First Watch already has a sound foundation, and it’s his responsibility to uphold those systems but also build on the brand’s momentum and anticipate what lies ahead. So far, he’s succeeded in that mission.

Despite the hardships of last year, First Watch managed to open 42 new stores. And although the breakfast category is red-hot, the Florida-based brand outperformed them all. It managed to do all this while still taking care of its employees through financial support, healthcare assistance, and regular communication. It also launched a new initiative to combat social and racial inequity. Tomasso recognizes that without a resilient and engaged crew, no venture, no matter the size or value proposition, can move forward.

Tomasso sat down with FSR to offer a glimpse under the hood of what could be considered full service’s best growth vehicle.

When the pandemic first began, First Watch was one of the more proactive brands in terms of shutting down and taking care of employees. How did you have that foresight?

I don’t know if I would call it foresight as much as it was a kind of a principles guiding decision to really put the safety of our employees and our customers first. Our folks were dealing with a lot at the time; they were trying to balance their personal lives and then the stress at work and all that was going on. So we felt like it was time to allow them to focus on their personal well-being and their families. It was a culture-focused decision, a people-focused decision. To me, the chips were down at that point, and it was time to walk the walk of the talk that we had done for 36-plus years about how important our people are to us.

We offered bonuses to hourly employees who had been with us for more than three years. We also gave all our employees—whether they were on our insurance or not—access to telemedicine. We paid the employer and employee portion of healthcare premiums for our furloughed employees, and we covered 100 percent of out-of-pocket expenses for them for their medical business related to COVID-19.

So we did a lot of things to let our employees know that we cared about them, and some of it was not financial. It was just making sure that we had constant communication while they were furloughed, so they never felt disconnected. We were trying to take some of that burden off them. We think those things that we did back then have really played a key role in our recovery, and we’re recovering much more quickly than we expected.

On a financial level, how were you able to stay afloat while still helping employees?

I think one of the things going back to the first point was the stress that all restaurant employees were under at that point. We actually were concerned that if we had continued to stay open and operate under those difficult situations, then when this resurgence of business did come, our folks would have been too tired and perhaps even burned out to do that. So that was another part of our decision.

As far as financially getting through it, we worked really hard. We reached out to all of our landlords and negotiated rent abatements or deferrals, postponed some projects and expenses that we had, and did everything we could to shore up a financial situation to get through that time while not knowing how long we needed to plan for. We also had the support of our private equity partner, Advent International, who was a backstop for us. They proactively worked with us to ensure that we would get through this time and come out on the other side and be positioned to continue the growth and performance that we had leading up to COVID. Their support and a lot of key decisions ensured that we were basically as lean and mean as we could be during that time.

First Watch Interior

Last year, First Watch also introduced the #BeABetterHuman initiative. How were you able to launch the program in the midst of so much chaos?

I think people tend to forget that [the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter movement] were occurring simultaneously. Obviously each of them in and of itself is a crisis: one a pandemic and one a social issue that was brewing for a long time. I credit our leadership team—and specifically Laura Sorensen, our chief people officer—with putting together programs to address that. We did a self-analysis to see where we were and realized that we could be doing more and so we put together a mentorship program. The #BeABetterHuman series was an ongoing webinar series with our employees. We established scholarships with historically black colleges and universities. We established our own minority scholarships for some of our employees to continue their education. And we made donations to various organizations that we felt would help us, and we would help them raise the profile of the needs that were out there. To do it during that time was difficult, but it was the right thing to do.

What does growth look like for First Watch?

In 2019, we were the fastest growing full-service restaurant company in America, and we also had a very robust pipeline of restaurants in various stages of development and construction to continue that growth. There were a number of restaurants that were pretty far along when COVID first hit, so we did continue to open restaurants during 2020, and I don’t know of anybody that opened more than us during that time. We also moved some to 2021 and then continued our efforts behind the scenes while the restaurants were closed to set ourselves up for that growth. This year, we’ll open more than 40 between company-owned and franchised stores, and we expect that to increase even more for 2022.

For as successful as we’ve been, we have relatively low brand awareness, and we see that as an absolute upside. We believe that if we can increase our brand awareness, that’s going to be a driver as well. A lot of consumers don’t realize we’re a chain, and we like it that way. They think we’re their neighborhood breakfast, brunch, and lunch restaurant, and we do all we can to not dissuade them from thinking that way.

We have this philosophy of if we can do it in one, we should be able to do it in a thousand. Most restaurant companies, when they get to our size, start doing things differently than what got them where they are. We’re hyper-focused on staying true to who we are and what we’ve done regardless of how big we get.

What is First Watch’s key differentiator? Why is it the brand leading the breakfast and casual-dining categories?

I think it’s our approach to our menu. First of all, we’re focused on freshness. The innovation on our menu is another big piece of it. We have a broad range of offerings and ethnic dishes and standards, but then some things that we do really well and are unique to us, like our fresh juice program. When we talk to consumers about why they come to us, why they like us, it really is this differentiation in our approach to freshness.

The breakfast category is a massive category, and we’ve been disrupting it for many years. We try to continue widening the moat between us and anybody else in the segment. If your organization has not adopted a culture of change, it can be very difficult. But we relish that; we thrive in this change and our customers have come to expect that from us. And a lot of the things we’re doing are attracting that next generation of diner, so it keeps us fresh and relevant, even as we expand and get older.

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes Are Upgraded With  A Multigrain Batter And A Dollop Of Creamy Lemon Curd On Top

Lemon ricotta pancakes are upgraded with  a multigrain batter and a dollop of
creamy lemon curd on top.

How has your role shifted over your 15-year tenure? Oftentimes restaurant C-suites can rotate like a game of musical chairs.

We’re a lean corporate organization now, but we were even more so when I started in 2006. Our previous CEO, Ken Pendry—who basically cofounded the company—and I worked very closely together from my first day. Back then we did everything: We did real estate; we did culinary; we did HR; we did marketing, operations. It gave me a broad perspective of the whole business and got me involved in every aspect of the company. Then over the years I got to be part of that evolution in the menu, in the real estate strategy, in our supply chain, and really just fortifying the platform and tightening up the brand voice. All those things really were what we needed to do to set ourselves up for that growth.

It’s not lost on me how rare [my long tenure] is. I just have a deep love for this company and this brand, and I see so much more potential even now. It’s been very exciting for me to be a part of it, and I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished. There are a lot of things that are very rare in the restaurant industry that reside within First Watch. Every day we’re doing something new and exciting, and we have a tremendous team here; it’s an ego-less environment. We’re pretty small from a corporate office standpoint, but I’d put our leadership team up against anybody in the industry. We fly under the radar a little bit in the industry, but we kind of like it that way.

What legacy would you like to leave at First Watch?

Hopefully it’s not for a while, but I hope my legacy is measured by what happens after I leave because my goal is to have this company set up for years of continued growth and success.

And again, that can only be measured after I leave. The way I look at my job right now is like being on a rocket ship and guiding it the way it needs to go and keeping it on track so we continue to exceed everyone’s expectations. I’m confident that we can do it because we have a team that believes that we can—and that’s typically half the battle. I see potential for us to have a couple thousand restaurants and not veer from our core principles and our values and what has gotten us to this point thus far.

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Feature, Leader Insights, First Watch