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.