After trying an off-premise model for a several weeks amid coronavirus restrictions, the breakfast-lunch brand First Watch has decided to close temporarily all its company-owned restaurants, CEO Chris Tomasso said Monday.
The Bradenton, Fla.-based company, which had kept a number of its company-owned restaurants open for delivery and carry-out sales, said that as of Monday it would close all 309 of its company-owned restaurants. The company has 382 restaurants systemwide.
“We have made the difficult decision to temporarily close 100% of our company-owned restaurants beginning Monday, April 13,” said First Watch CEO Chris Tomasso in a LinkedIn Post over the weekend.
Tomasso, in an interview Monday, said the prime reason for the closures was employee safety and easing the burden on management employees, who, after the furlough of hourly workers in March, had borne the burden of staffing delivery and carry-out orders at the company restaurants.
Before states and cities imposed dining-room restrictions in March to stem the spread of COVID-19, First Watch units were doing less than 5% of sales in off-premise, Tomasso said, but that boomed after dining rooms were closed.
Tomasso added that the “off-premise engine that we stood up very quickly definitely was humming. Ironically, with no hourly employees, as those sales were growing it was becoming more and more of a challenge for our teams to operate the restaurants at that volume with just managers and above.”
The CEO said First Watch’s in-house coronavirus task force “felt they were going to be worn out, and we worried about them being exposed to the general public and each other – personal protection equipment being as scarce as it is and being prioritized for first responders.”
Tomasso said he wanted the brand to be ready to reopen when restrictions eased. In the meantime, he said the company is doing technology upgrades and its in-house coronavirus task force is watching all the indicators to work toward re-opening.
Meanwhile, some of First Watch’s 73 franchised units had close temporarily, a spokesperson said. “Some of our franchisees chose to temporarily close their restaurants throughout the past couple weeks as well, so we now have 39 franchise restaurants open,” the spokesperson said.
Markets with franchised restaurants still open include Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., and parts of Houston, Tomasso said.
“Throughout these past few weeks of trials and tragedy, through sleepless nights worrying about our people and their families, through daily calls with our leadership team to discuss countless scenarios and make nearly impossible decisions, I’ve seen the best in people,” Tomasso said in his initial LinkedIn post.
“For 37 years, First Watch has operated around one core principle: You First,” he said. “It’s a simple concept that speaks volumes to us – our people are our most important asset, and their physical safety and health, as well as their mental well-being, are always our priority. I carry that responsibility, and it is not something I take lightly.”
During the closure, he said, First Watch is continuing restaurant managers’ existing healthcare benefits and covering “100% of out-of-pocket costs, co-pays and deductibles for any medical visits related to COVID-19.” The company also invested in telemedicine benefits for every employee and their family members, he said.
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