First Watch avocado toast.
First Watch

First Watch takes care of customers with five steps of service and 10 commitments. 

From Starbucks to First Watch, COO Dan Jones Shares Lessons in People-First Philosophy

The executive describes what he's learned in his career and what attracted him to the soaring casual-dining chain. 

Almost two years ago, Dan Jones became the first COO in First Watch's history. But one of his first real experiences with the brand came in the kitchen. 

To build humility and empathy—core values that originally attracted him to the brand—he spent six weeks training in the back of house, flipping eggs, and learning every position. 

The second order of business was setting up meetings with every key person at First Watch who could appropriately describe what fuels the chain and pushes it forward. That involved a two-hour sit-down with founder Ken Pendery and Dave Lynch, the company's most senior divisional president with 28 years of service. At this meeting, Jones asked Pendery about one thing that he would want him to carry on at First Watch to make him proud. Pendery's answer was simple—be kind. 

"We want to honor what's made it successful," Jones says. "And I think for me learning, being curious, and honoring the past and what's made it successful then helps us work together into the future to tackle the challenges of the future."

You're invited: Reserve your seat to hear First Watch CEO Chris Tomasso give a keynote at our upcoming NextGen Restaurant Summit! 

Jones is well-versed in brands with a strong culture. He started as a barista at Starbucks, which kicked off a 14-year career that covered store management, district management, and regional operations. Before Jones left, he was a market leader overseeing 90 stores in New York City and handling eight district managers, 1,700 employees, and $200 million in annual sales. 

The restaurant executive says he fell in love with the coffee giant because of its people-first philosophy. This is where he learned how to listen to employees, create feedback loops, and enact real change based on direct concerns. Jones also discovered the best ways to invest in the customer experience and came to understand that guests are smart enough to know when a brand cheapens the product, changes standards, or takes shortcuts—it's all about adding value to every visit. The third lesson was impacting people and paving a path for them to achieve their goals, similar to what others did for him as he rose through the ranks. 

His next stop was CAVA, where he discovered what it means to be part of a growing, emerging company. Jones was the fast-casual chain's first COO as well, back when it had 18 restaurants, and he was there for the $300 million deal for Zoes Kitchen and the years-long process of converting them into CAVA stores. Now the brand is public after raising $318 million in its IPO

He was drawn to First Watch because of full-service's ability to create connections with customers. 

"I love First Watch, both the product, the brand," he explains. "I love their ‘You First’ mission and how we are taking care of our people.”

The company is certainly achieving financially. Same-store sales increased 12.9 percent year-over-year in the first quarter, lapping 21.9 percent growth in 2022. Traffic increased 5.1 percent, outpacing the brand's competition. Adjusted EBITDA was $27.4 million, up 42 percent from last year.

READ MORE: First Watch Embraces a Dine-In Comeback

Jones entered the casual-dining chain with an "if it's not broke, don't fix it" mentality. First Watch has been around for 40 years, and in those decades, it established five steps of service—greet table with a pot of coffee, deliver beverages and syrup, deliver food quickly, check back with customers for satisfaction, and present check halfway through the meal. That's paired with 10 commitments: Greet customers within one minute, greet table within two minutes, deliver food in 10 minutes, complete five steps of service, reset table within four-and-a-half minutes, do whatever is necessary to fix a problem, ensure the restaurant is clean, never run out of an item, say goodbye to every guest, and do every commitment with a smile and happy demeanor. 

"It's been well-established for First Watch," Jones says. "And it provides that consistent, warm, welcoming experience for our customers. And in my previous [experience at quick-service], especially at CAVA, we were developing and building those operating philosophies—how do we want to operate, how do we want to show up for our customers? And I'm really proud of the work we did. But at First Watch those five steps of service and 10 commitments are well-established. And now it's our job as we grow to ensure that every new restaurant we open—and we're opening 40-plus this year—executes and provides that same consistent experience to each customer, whether it's in Detroit or Arizona or Florida or New Jersey."

First Watch also has "why" tours where executives visit restaurants and meet with cooks, servers, bussers, dishwashers, and hosts from each region. The brand does 21 of them every year for an hour and a half. Jones, CEO Chris Tomasso, and chief people officer Laura Sorensen hear everything from tickets not firing correctly on the KDS to lags on the POS system. 

The COO made his stamp on the brand by establishing a GM Council, comprising 21 general managers from each region who meet with senior leaders once per month to build relationships and develop two-way communication. For instance, First Watch was using a call center that took orders on the weekend, and the company was considering stopping it because there were challenges. Through a discussion, the GM Council advised executives on the pros and cons and how change could be implemented. 

"They were instrumental in guiding our decisions," Jones says. "I just think listening to your people, listening to the people doing the work is so critical. I always say the best ideas we have come from the people doing the work. And I learned that from my time at Starbucks and I’ve carried that through all the way."

Labor shortages are still proving to be an issue for restaurants, but CFO Mel Hope told investors in May that First Watch's turnover is in descent. But he cautioned that there's still work left to do. 

Jones says the brand has an advantage with recruitment and retainment because of leadership longevity. General managers have spent an average of five years with First Watch, and directors of operations have an average of 10 years under their belt. For regional vice presidents, it's 15 years. When that type of tenure is in place, teams better understand expectations and how to deliver experiences, Jones says. He also noted that the chain doesn't have an "opening team versus closing team" debate about which side is setting the other up for success. With First Watch, there's one shift and one team per day. 

"It's about humility, empathy, kindness, as well as curiosity," Jones says. "I think that's allowed me to be successful here at First Watch and given me the opportunity and the honor to lead the operations team here, which I'm very proud of."