The Bradenton Herald recently sat down for a question-and-answer session over lunch with Chris Tomasso, the 48-year-old CEO of First Watch, a daytime restaurant company based in Bradenton with more than 350 restaurants in 31 states.
As we looked over the menu at the First Watch location at 4324 53rd Ave. E.. our first question: What do you recommend?
His suggestion: the turkey burger.
Here is the rest of the interview:
Q. What are your priorities for moving First Watch into the future?
A. Right now we are focused on growth. We are a high-growth concept. We are building about 50 restaurants a year. In order to do that, we need good quality people. So we are focused on hiring, training and retaining great talent. For us, growth equals opportunity. Both growth on the restaurant side and opportunities for individuals who are with or will be with our company.
Q. In your view, how well positioned is First Watch for growth, and where might that come?
A. We think we are very well positioned for growth. First Watch is kind of in the middle of three, what we consider to be, significant long-term trends. One of which is the focus by the consumer on health. Our menu plays into that very well. The other one is the breakfast day part in the restaurant industry is the only segment that is actually growing. And we have a leadership position in that segment that we will continue to leverage. Then lastly, it is actually an evergreen trend, is the importance of value. We work really hard to ensure that we are delivering an exceptional value to our consumer not just from a price standpoint but from an overall experience and ingredient and menu innovation standpoint as well.
Q. What are the most promising opportunities that you see for the company?
A. I think for us to continue to leverage the growth of the breakfast segment in general. We are very fortunate to be centered right in the middle of that. And to be able to leverage our 35 years of expertise in that area. We are very focused on breakfast, brunch and lunch. A lot of people ask us, why don’t you open for dinner? We just believe that we can be the best we can be if we specialize. So really focusing on that breakfast, brunch and lunch day part allows us to be successful.
Q. What are your challenges?
A. I don’t think our challenges are very different than others you may be speaking with. Finding quality people, especially when we are growing like we are. So, again, we’ll open about 50 restaurants this year. Each of those restaurants will require three new managers. Just for new growth alone we need 150 new managers to join our company in 2019. How you source those people, how you train them, the benefits packages that you put together to retain them, and give them a good quality of life, and putting them in a position that the company cares about them. And that they are deriving value from being with us as well. That’s our biggest challenge and where most of our company’s focus is in 2019.
Q. How does First Watch forecast food trends and what will be popular with diners?
A. We work really hard to have our finger on the pulse of trends. It’s an important distinction to talk about trends versus fads. We look for long-term trends in the way of consumer dining. We have a corporate chef and we also have a team of chefs that are third-party consultants that we work with, who work together to identify what those trends are and then find ways to incorporate them into First Watch. Our fresh-squeezed juices for example, our kale tonic, the special that we are running today, Mediterranean baked eggs, which is very popular on the West Coast and in New York. So bringing those unique dishes and ingredients to our consumers across middle America, if you will, keeps us on top in a culinary forward way. Our customer has grown to not only appreciate that but expect that from us.
Q. Has it always been your goal to be in the restaurant business?
A. I don’t think it’s been my goal, but apparently it is my destiny. I started really early, at age 13 working in my uncle’s pizza restaurant in Sarasota, washing dishes. I moved up to prep cook, and then finally got to work out in the dining room with the pizza oven, which was right in the middle of the dining room. I worked in restaurants around Sarasota until I graduated high school, but never expected it to be a long-term career. I happened to get into it after college. I was in marketing, and my first real restaurant job was with Hard Rock Cafe International in their marketing department. I always wanted to be in sports and entertainment. I actually took that job more for the entertainment side. But honestly, once I got into the restaurant industry and started to dig deep into it, and understand it, what I really loved was you could put something on the menu and drive a consumer behavior. There is instant gratification. You know right away if something is going to sell or not. Or if a promotion you are doing is working. So I really took to that. I have been in the restaurant industry now for 23 years and couldn’t imagine doing anything different.
Q. How do you view your career at this point?
A. My career at this point is still a work in progress. I think I am still a relatively young guy, still have a lot of years in front of me. I joined First Watch 13 years ago when we had about 55 restaurants. Now we are up to over 355. That alone almost makes it feel like two different careers. You know you were managing a smaller concept, and now we are getting to a formidable size and with that comes different day-to-day tasks, and challenges, and adventures. So. yeah, it is still definitely a work in progress.
Q. Who are your role models or mentors? How did they inspire you?
A. I try to take little pieces from a lot of different people, rather than one or two role models. Most of what I try to take from them really has more to do with management, or integrity or how they carry themselves, how they treat people. But I will say working alongside Ken Penderey for 13 years now, and watching how he has grown this company from restaurant number-two, up until where we are today, I would definitely consider him to be a mentor. I have gotten a lot from him during the years we have worked together.
Q. Do you have children who might follow you into the business?
A. I am married to my college sweetheart. We have two kids. My oldest is in college in UCF. My youngest daughter is a sophomore at Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota. I am happy if I can get them to follow me to dinner one night. If they want to follow me in this career path, I certainly wouldn’t discourage them from doing that. Like any parent, you want to give them whatever opportunity they want. Sure, if either one of them came to me and said, ‘Dad, I really want to be in the restaurant industry, I would do everything I could to help them. If they want to do something else, I am there for them, too. My son did work at First Watch last summer, saving money for college. He bussed tables and got to see how hard it is to work at a restaurant. I think he has a greater appreciation now for how hard it is to work at a restaurant.
Q. What are the benefits of being based in Bradenton? Has there ever been discussion about moving elsewhere?
A. We love being based in Bradenton. We get to tell people that we live where people vacation. Now that we have restaurants in 31 states, we see the weather that people are dealing with, especially this time of year, and it makes us appreciate more where we are from a weather standpoint. This whole Southwest Florida community is a very tight-knit kind of a big small town. So it’s great that we are being able to be based here. It helps us when we are attracting talent to come join us at out home office. It’s a great place for us. We have been here so many years that it truly is home.
Q. What are the ways First Watch gives back to the Bradenton community?
A. We do a lot. That’s core to who we are. First Watch is involved in many community-based activities in and around Sarasota-Bradenton. Everything from Forty Carrots to hosting our own half marathon where we have 5,500 runners every year, that we serve breakfast to after the race. We do a lot with the schools. That’s where we spend most our marketing dollars and efforts, one to two miles around each restaurant. We work with schools, and youth groups and Little Leagues. You can pretty much go to any park around town and you’ll find a First Watch banner hanging on the outfield fence or football field. That’s what we like to do.
For more information about First Watch, visit firstwatch.com.