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First Watchs Quinoa Power Bowl  Winner for Best Healthful Menu Innovation
<p>First Watch&#39;s Quinoa Power Bowl &mdash; Winner for Best Healthful Menu Innovation</p>

MenuMasters 2014: First Watch

Nation&#39;s Restaurant News salutes culinary creativity with its annual MenuMasters Awards. Honorees will be celebrated at the Drake Hotel in Chicago on May 17. Read in-depth profiles of all 2014 winners &gt;&gt;

First WatchSeeking to add to the menu a healthful dish layered with popular flavors and ingredients, First Watch created the hot-selling Quinoa Power Bowl, winner of the 2014 MenuMasters award for Healthful Innovations.

The idea to combine the protein-packed whole grain with grilled, all-natural chicken breast, pesto, house-roasted tomatoes and feta in the Pesto Chicken Quinoa Bowl was born of a research trip First Watch officials made to several trendy Los Angeles restaurants.

“We hit about 10 restaurants a day and ordered 20 or 25 items at each one,” said Chris Tomasso, chief marketing officer of the 120-unit University Park, Fla.-based breakfast, lunch and brunch chain.

After enjoying quinoa in a variety of executions, the First Watch team had a gut feeling “that our customers would like it, not just on the West Coast, but all over the country,” Tomasso said.

Buoyed by strong sales and positive customer feedback after it was introduced as a promotional item, First Watch added the Pesto Chicken Quinoa Bowl to the core menu. The Cherry Chicken Quinoa Bowl, with dried cherries, house-roasted zucchini and sliced almonds, later joined the lineup as well.

Early on, the menu makers debated whether quinoa was “too out there” for First Watch customers, who dwell in markets ranging from Orlando, Fla., to Columbus, Ohio, but they felt confident forging ahead.

“Our customers trust us not to put something on the menu that they wouldn’t like,” Tomasso said. “We got a lot of trial based on that, and it turned into frequency.”

More recently, the chain hired former Front Burner Brands corporate chef Shane Schaibly as its director of culinary/corporate chef. Schaibly will focus on seasonal foods, with an eye toward other consumer culinary trends, the chain said.

What makes First Watch's Quinoa Power Bowl a winner:

1. Chicken breast: All-natural chicken breast, broadly popular and cost efficient, is grilled and sautéed in lemon dressing for flavor and moistness.

2. Basil pesto sauce: A drizzle of basil pesto underscores the message of freshness. The ingredient also plays on First Watch customers’ positive associations with and responses to Italian-inspired ingredients in other dishes.

3. Feta cheese: Crumbled on the Pesto Chicken Quinoa bowl, it melts into the other ingredients and adds a pleasing, creamy texture.

4. House-roasted tomatoes: A chef-driven garnish, this ingredient brings color, boosts flavor and adds another healthful vegetable to the Quinoa Power Bowl mix.

5. Quinoa: A “Know Your Superfoods” menu box, complete with a phonetic pronunciation of quinoa, introduced the nutrition star “in a respectful way” to First Watch customers, chief marketing officer Chris Tomasso said.

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