First Watch continues path to expansion

jsalman@bradenton.comOctober 26, 2012 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- First Watch Restaurants Inc. tacked two Atlanta restaurants onto its rapidly growing portfolio Thursday with an acquisition that also includes an option to later buy the entire J. Christopher's brand.

The two new Georgia restaurants are the latest in a plan by the Lakewood Ranch company to triple in size by 2018 -- a trajectory that would push its location count to more than 300.

The J. Christopher's restaurants in the Atlanta suburbs of Johns Creek and Smyrna will both be converted to First Watch restaurants within the next few months. Terms of the sale were not disclosed.

As part of the deal, First Watch also has acquired the rights to purchased the brand, concept and all intellectual property to the entire 21-location J. Christopher's franchise.

First Watch is still vetting whether it will exercise that option on the remaining 19 restaurants. The acquisition is the first in the company's 30-year history.

"The acquisition of the intellectual property is still being evaluated right now," said Chris Tomasso, a First Watch spokesman.

The acquisition comes as First Watch opened its 99th restaurant a week ago, with plans to open what was just slated to become No. 100 in Panama City next week.

First Watch opened its first restaurant in California in 1983. But the company moved its headquarters to the Manatee-Sarasota area just three year later, opening its second location at Square South near the Sarasota Square mall in 1986.

Tomasso attributes the company's recent growth to a combination of timing, a focus on healthy options, and good price points -- with a $9 average meal check.

"We're in a pretty aggressive growth plan during the next three years, and our

plan is to triple the size of the company by 2018," he said. "We'll do that through acquisitions such as this, continuing to open new restaurants and our selective franchising."

With 2,500 employees, First Watch generates nearly $100 million in annual sales.

Plans are under way for moving the company's headquarters to a larger space in South Manatee, where it also will add employees to its corporate payroll.

Much of its future growth is expected to come with franchise partners, a segment of the business just launched 18 months ago.

Ten of First Watch's restaurants are now franchises, and Tomasso sees that demand growing as the brand becomes more recognizable in other parts of the country.

The acquisition of J. Christopher's also gives First Watch an entrance into the Atlanta market, after recent expansion into Jacksonville and Nashville.

"Acquiring these two high-performing J. Christopher's restaurants is an ideal way for us to establish an immediate, solid base upon which we can expand throughout not only Atlanta, but Georgia and the rest of the Southeast," said Ken Pendery, First Watch president and CEO.

Founded in 1996, Atlanta-based J. Christopher's Restaurants LLC opened its first location in Marietta, Ga.

In 2009, industry veterans Dick Holbrook and Sam Haddock acquired the rights to J. Christopher's from original founders Jay McCann and Chris Brogdon, who retained 19 restaurants under various license or franchise agreements.

"We welcome the First Watch brand into the Atlanta market and are certain that they will enjoy the same level of success that they have in so many other communities," J. Christopher's CEO Dick Holbrook said in a statement. "We're positive that existing customers of these two J. Christopher's restaurants will come to know and love First Watch and its unique offerings."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.

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