First Watch

First Watch plots aggressive expansion

Breakfast-and-lunch concept aims to nearly triple unit count by 2017

From a unit-growth standpoint, full-service breakfast-and-lunch concept First Watch has been on a tear.

First Watch Restaurants Inc. opened 10 locations in 2011 and 10 more in 2012. The 30-year-old company plans to open 20 more locations in 2013, and aims to have 300 or more restaurants by 2017, according to Chris Tomasso, chief marketing officer.

The Bradenton, Fla.-based company currently has 105 units.

“We’ve been on a pretty aggressive growth plan for about three or four years now, and 2013 is no exception,” Tomasso said. “We’re looking to expand in existing markets [for First Watch] and expand in developing markets as well.”

First Watch acquired two J. Christopher’s units in the Atlanta market last year, the company’s first expansion into the region. Atlanta will be a key growth area for First Watch in coming years, Tomasso said, noting the company hopes to eventually open 20 restaurants in the Atlanta area alone.

Southeast Florida, metro-area Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tenn. and Indianapolis, Ind. are also burgeoning markets for First Watch, he said.

Key to First Watch's expansion is that breakfast is the fastest-growing daypart, Tomasso noted. “We just happen to be at the point of a couple of critical trends right now, which are breakfast and healthy eating,” he said.

The exterior and interior of a new First Watch restaurant.
The exterior and interior of a new First Watch restaurant.

In recent years, First Watch also underwent a store redesign that emphasized its daytime appeal. The new stores feature natural light and “a more modern, inviting warm and bright space,” Tomasso said.

All new stores have the updated design, and the company is continuing to refresh older units, he said.

When looking for new locations for First Watch, the company has specific demographic and psychographic profiles it looks for. On weekday mornings, for instance, Tomasso said business people are key customers, while on weekends, the brunch crowd shows up — it’s “families galore.”

“Daytime population is important during the week. Residential populations are important on weekends,” he said, adding, “We like being around daily needs, like grocery stores and dry cleaners, where people are going on a daily basis. We like to maximize visibility to traffic.”

When expanding, First Watch plans to keep most locations company owned. Only about 10 percent of current First Watch locations are franchised, Tomasso said. “We’ve got a compelling business model, and our returns are such that it’s very attractive for us to continue to own and operate,” he said.

The company, which is majority owned by private equity firm Freeman Spogli & Co., declined to disclose sales numbers.

Contact Erin Dostal at [email protected] [5]
Follow her on Twitter: @erindostal [6]