Last week, First Watch, a restaurant centered around morning meals, opened its first location in Jacksonville, Florida.

When the restaurant chain—whose name derives from a sailor’s first shift of the day—opened its first location in Pacific Grove, California, in 1983, its concept of serving strictly breakfast and lunch and closing its doors at 2:30 p.m. was original.

Since then, restaurant chains have innovated with their own breakfast menus, diners remain a draw with their all-day breakfast options, and even coffee houses such as Starbucks and Caribou Coffee try to lure in early morning patrons by sprucing up the food offerings.

With 90 restaurants open and 10 more planned for 2011, the Jacksonville location represents a foothold in the expansion strategy for the breakfast, lunch, and brunch concept.

Despite the swell in competition, “we have no desire to open for dinner,” says Chris Tomasso, spokesperson for First Watch. “It’s actually part of our brand and what we’ve become known for, and we don’t consider opening for dinner an option at all.”

Instead, Tomasso says First Watch builds its brand by staying true to eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches, while turning customers’ expectations on their heads. “We looked at it and said, what would we like to experience as a consumer?” he explains.

The result: the restaurant offers complementary newspapers and WiFi. There is no charge for substituting egg whites or cholesterol-free or for plate sharing. Healthy fare such as organic yogurt, turkey burgers, and turkey sausage fill the menu. And the phrase “automatic gratuity” is nonexistent, no matter the size of the party.

“Those things seemed to be high on the list of things that annoy consumers, and we felt like we could provide a different experience by doing something different than what the customer is used to,” Tomasso says.

Tomasso says the growth strategy in the first 10 to 12 years of First Watch was modest.

The chain began a more aggressive growth strategy in 2006, when 42 locations existed. Today, there are 92.

“We continue to look for new, vibrant markets for us to expand into,” Tomasso says. “We’re predominantly located east of the Mississippi right now, but we’re looking for new markets in the Southeast, the mid-Atlantic, and up the Eastern coast.”

Future growth will depend on multi-unit, regional franchisees and experienced restaurateurs interested in new markets. The goal is to hit 115 First Watch locations by the end of 2012.

By Sonya Chudgar

Industry News, First Watch