Leadership

Exclusive interview: Chris Tomasso of First Watch reflects on winning IFMA's 2024 Gold Plate Award

Photograph: IFMA

IFMA proudly named Chris Tomasso the 2024 Gold Plate Winner, recognizing his exceptional contributions to First Watch Restaurants Inc. and the broader food-away-from-home sector.

Mike Schwartz, Senior Vice President of Member Value at IFMA, sat down with Chris to unpack First Watch's ongoing growth, its strategies for navigating the current cost-of-living challenges, and more.

MS: It was great to see you during Gold & Silver Plate Award weekend, and congratulations on not only winning the Silver Plate Award in the Chain, Full Service Category, you came away with the Gold Plate! What did that mean to you?

CT: It was humbling, because there were so many industry legends and influential people in the room, not to mention all the past recipients, whom I respect so much. To be in their company live that weekend, and to now be on that list, where my name now sits with theirs, is amazing to me. One of those names is Phil Hickey—who I have so much respect for—and to have him emcee the night made it even more special. I’m also happy that many of First Watch’s executive team and my wife were there to celebrate the recognition.

MS: At the awards ceremony, your mentor, Ralph Alvarez, shared some words and introduced you. Can you share how you met your mentor and express the significance of Ralph's mentorship to you?

CT: Absolutely. Ralph is a restaurant industry legend. I had the opportunity to get to know him when he joined our board, after investing in us alongside Advent International in 2017. The reason I selected Ralph to introduce me is because he’s been such a great partner to me as someone who has previously sat in my seat, as President & COO of McDonald’s. Despite being involved in so many endeavors and boards, like Lowe’s, Eli Lilly and Traeger, he’s so accessible and so involved in our business – in the best way.

We’ve also become friends over these years. When you go into the foxhole with someone like we did during COVID, it creates a lifelong bond. I was fortunate to have him a phone call away during those times when we were making significant decisions. I really value his counsel. Every leader needs someone like that, and if you are lucky to have one or more people in your life like that, it just makes you better.

MS: He had such wonderful words to share about you, it sounds like a tremendous relationship. Let’s talk about the business. For those who are unaware, can you share some background on First Watch?

CT: We are the leader in the Daytime Dining category—and we had a big influence in establishing it. We’ve been around for more than 40 years and have more than 530 restaurants.  

Our model is quite unique in our industry—we’re open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and we specialize in breakfast, lunch and brunch. We don’t try to be all things to all people. Our daytime only hours and “No Nights Ever” creates a very compelling employee proposition for our people. It allows us to attract great people and offer them a quality of life and opportunities for growth that are unmatched in our industry. We have tremendous tenure and turnover that historically sits well below industry averages. If you have the spirit of hospitality, but you also value work-life balance with a focus on family, we are the company for you.


MS: Let’s talk about the consumer. Who is “your” consumer and what shifts are you seeing in consumer expectations for food-away-from-home occasions?
 

CT: The answer is “everyone,” really. We align nicely with long-term consumer trends like health and wellness, daypart agnostic dining and the growing brunch occasion.


We’ve done a good job of being at the forefront of trends on the culinary side, too. We use very high-quality ingredients. We don’t have deep fryers, heat lamps or microwaves in our restaurants. We use cage-free eggs, all-natural chicken and serve organic greens. We juice daily using all-natural ingredients like beets, apples and kale. And, when we say “fresh,” we mean it. We get fresh produce delivered three to four times per week. That focus on freshness has been a big part of our success. We find that’s what today’s consumer is looking for: healthy options.

We believe that eating healthy doesn’t have to be subtractive.  Our menu is diverse enough to accommodate virtually any diet or healthy eating plan. But we aren’t preachy, and we stop short of telling you what you should eat. We trust if you’re keto, you know what to order.


MS: A tactic we’re seeing from many chains is experimenting with innovative limited time offers (LTOs) to increase foot traffic. How does First Watch think about LTOs? What have you seen as being effective?

CT: We talk about LTOs in terms of seasonal menu and items. Our food ethos is to “Follow the Sun.”

We utilize this approach to remind the consumer that we are focused on freshness and in-season produce. People talk about local produce, but I always like to say, “If you’re in Milwaukee, do you want your oranges from Milwaukee or Florida?” We source from regions where the ingredients are at their peak.

We’ve had that strategy for many years, so now, our customers and employees look forward to seasonal offers—and it improves our relevancy. It’s a way to flex our muscles a bit, and we have built trust with the consumers. If we put it out there, they will try it and follow us along. It’s what allowed us to bring in premium proteins and items like quinoa. In fact, we were one of the first to serve quinoa—before many people even knew how to pronounce it! We are taking consumers along for the ride.

 

MS: With today’s inflationary pressures and slowing traffic, many operators have employed discounting strategies. Is this something that First Watch is considering?

CT: I’ve been here 18 years, and I lived through ‘08 and ’09. It’s a very similar playbook when consumer sentiments change. The brunch occasion is one that consumers will continue to place a high value on. They’ll prioritize getting together with friends and family to celebrate.

We are focused on everyday value. We are not a discounting brand. We’re seeing that consumers are more selective with their visits, but not necessarily their dollars. When they visit, they’re still having the whole experience – enjoying a shareable, ordering a cocktail. We’re not seeing check management. Our philosophy is to deliver a great experience, deliver value, be consistent and don’t play games.

MS: We’re seeing so much implementation of technology in the industry and brands are experimenting with the balance between “tech” and “service”. How do you balance maintaining great customer experience while integrating technology and data in new ways?

CT: It’s easy for us. Technology augments the customer experience; it doesn’t replace it. Any tech that we review and eventually deploy is about improving the customer journey. That could happen before you come through the door. If we know what they order, or how often they visit, we can do some special things.

But there are things technology can’t replace. When you come to our restaurant, we will still open the door for you and greet you with a smile. There is a place for an all-tech experience, but ours is more of a gathering place and social occasion.

One thing I hear the most is that our employees “just seem happy.” That is because we are only open during the day. We attract a specific type of person. We understand we may be the first people you interact with, and we take that to heart.

MS: First Watch has had tremendous growth over the past several years. What are your future growth expectations?

CT: We’re focused on organic growth. We’re a leader in the industry, and our plan is to continue to expand. Our total addressable market is 2,200+ restaurants, and we’re only a quarter of the way there. We believe our growth is a multiplier on many fronts—especially for hiring, attracting and retaining great talent. It’s only a matter of time.

We’re in 29 states and growing. One of the statistics we are most proud of is our proven portability is evidenced by our top decile restaurants spanning 10 states and 20 DMAs.

And we still have low awareness. Consumers are still discovering us. We have a good model. It has served us well and we’re executing against it.

MS: As a leader in this ever-changing industry, you must be keeping a keen eye on the marketplace at all times. What keeps you up at night?

CT: Legislation that disrupts our industry, seemingly without a clear purpose and which all too often takes the form of solutions to problems that don’t exist or are overblown. Through advocate associations and the sheer size of scope of our industry, we should have a lot of influence there. This is a great industry to have not only a job, but a career. Our industry makes a lot of contributions to our local communities, and I hope that can continue.

MS: We started our conversation today talking about mentorship and leadership. I’d like to end the same way. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received over your career?

CT: It’s about people’s development. When you are all rowing the same way, it’s empowering.
I always say: build your team, then you build your team. The first is getting the team together, then you build them up. Set them up for growth themselves and allow them to be successful.

As I was up there accepting the Gold Plate award, I was thinking about everyone in our organization. There's no way I'd be up there without them—they are the best in the business.

Interested in more stories from the food-away-from-home industry? IFMA hosts in-person and virtual events. Stay up to date with its latest events here or follow them on LinkedIn.

To learn more about Chris Tomasso, don’t miss IFMA’s new podcast, IFMA Food CEO Xchange, where they’ll circle back with this industry giant.

This post is sponsored by IFMA

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