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A shorter day works for First Watch

BRADENTON — Tired of the long hours and constant relocations required in their management jobs with another restaurant chain, the founders of First Watch liked the idea of serving only breakfast, brunch and lunch.

"We could be open 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and be on the golf course by 3," recalled Ken Pendery, chief executive of the Bradenton "daytime cafe" chain.

Don't by misled by Pendery's laid-back manner.

He's the stickler for detail directing the finely-tuned choreography at First Watch restaurants. In a typical day, each crew serves a huge 73-item menu to about 500 customers in a little more than eight hours, half of them in a two-hour lunch rush.

Servers carry his Ten Commandments card which includes: Each customer is greeted within a minute, usually by a store manager who directs the seating. Tables are reset within 41/2 minutes. Servers make contact within two minutes, check to see if diners like their food a few bites after it's served, and the check arrives half-way through the meal.

"We're not trying to push people to increase table turn," he explained. "It's so guests can leave whenever they want."

Indeed, free local newspapers and Wi-Fi are there for morning coffee sippers.

First Watch offers California light cuisine — eggs Benedict, 11 styles of egg-white omelets, a line of signature pancakes, crepes and egg Chickichangas plus 13 sandwiches.

There are no deep-fat fryers, microwaves or heat lamps.

In 1981, Pendery, 57, and retired co-founder John Sullivan were seafood and steakhouse chain vets helping launch a breakfast-brunch chain in Colorado called Le Peep. After a falling out with the owners, they united to start First Watch 26 years ago. Now First Watch is twice as big as Le Peep.

First Watch Restaurants Inc. has grown to 94 stores — seven in the bay area — in 14 states with plans for 10 more openings this year plus new franchises recently sold in three more states. The average store did $1.2 million in sales in 2011, while the chain hit a respectable 3.5 percent sales gain in stores open more than a year.

In December private equity fund Catterton Partners, which is now weighing selling its interest in the Tampa-based Outback Steakhouse chain, sold its 85 percent stake in First Watch to Freeman & Spigoli, another private equity fund with plans to double the store count again in five years.

First Watch has plenty of rivals elbowing for morning business as even more fast-food chains turn their attention to breakfast. Subway and Dunkin Donuts now offer breakfast sandwiches, while Starbucks and McDonald's added oatmeal.

NPD Group says 43 percent of Americans only have a drink like coffee for breakfast, but the average consumer eats or drinks something 1.4 times before noon.

First Watch generated enough fans to rank as the best breakfast chain, ahead of Bob Evans, in the most recent survey of 150,000 Consumer Reports readers. With an average check of $9, the chain scored top ratings in taste, service, value and menu choices.

Seven years under Catterton provided more than financial backing. Once guided largely by intuition, Pendery could buy consumer research and hire pros to design a new layout, with dark wood floors and fixtures, that's more appealing to women.

Pendery's golf game may still need work, but the man with egg-shaped business cards says fewer hours sharpens crew focus.

"Serving three meals a day dilutes what you deliver," he said.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

A shorter day works for First Watch 03/26/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 11:12am]
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