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Jax Daily Record Friday, Dec. 6, 201905:20 AM EST

Lessons from First Watch: Chain's customer service, growth strategies

Being nice, at First Watch, isn’t only for greeting customers. It’s a companywide belief that kindness goes a long way.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Hospitality lifer Ken Pendery recalls vividly the time when he was proudly wearing a new shirt and tie and a waitress in a fancy Cincinnati restaurant accidentally spilled red wine on him.

It wasn’t the spill that irked Pendery, it was management. They nonchalantly told him he could get the shirt dry-cleaned, return with the receipt and they would cut him a check.

“That’s really inconvenient,” said Pendery, a Cincinnati-area native, of the mid-1990s incident. “I didn’t want to have to come back there with the receipt.”

In response, Pendery, the executive chairman of breakfast-brunch-lunch chain First Watch, tells company managers to do the opposite.

“They will take $10 out of the drawer and pay for it in advance,” Pendery said. “And they will give the customer their card and say, ‘If this isn’t enough, call me, and we’ll send you the money for the rest.’”

That attitude defines the ‘You First’ mantra Pendery helped instill at First Watch. The chain, based in Manatee County near Sarasota, had $354 million in revenue in 2018, up 22.9% from $288 million in 2017.

Nationally recognized in its niche, First Watch has about 7,300 employees and nearly 400 locations nationwide, including six in Northeast Florida. Two more are in development. 

Pendery, who helped launch First Watch in Pacific Grove, California, in 1983, said the restaurant has grown beyond his wildest expectations.

But Pendery and other top First Watch executives work diligently to maintain a folksy, be-nice culture — reminiscent of its startup days.

The goal? Avoid mission creep and lost-culture missteps other hospitality firms have made when rapidly expanding.

That’s why Pendery greets every class of new managers at the First Watch Academy of Restaurant Management. The training school, near the company’s headquarters, which moved to Florida from California in 1986, has hosted more than 250 managers this year in one-week classes that cover leadership development, accountability, customer engagement, food safety and more.

“FARM is one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Pendery said.

Here are some of the customer service lessons from Pendery’s FARM presentations:

Kindness matters

 A kinglike mindset some restaurant managers have is counterproductive and shreds corporate culture. 

“You can enforce rules,” he said. “But be nice and treat everyone with respect.”

Pendery added: “The old-school manager would say. ‘I don’t care if they like me as long as they do what I say.’ But you want to be liked. You want to be well-regarded. You want to be someone they can look up to.”

Fix it fast

Pendery advises managers to not hesitate when addressing a problem — don’t complicate things by overthinking.

“If something’s wrong make it right,” Pendery said. He added that of the company’s 10 commandments of service, created in the 1980s, No. 6, “Customer concerns are handled with care and urgency,” is his favorite.

A different take

Pendery said beating competitors requires savvy marketing — not just better bacon and eggs.

“We didn’t know what segment we fit in when we started,” he said. “Our competition was Denny’s and IHOP, things like that. We are much different than that, so we created the phrase daytime cafe to honor what we’re all about.”

Be first

“One of the first major decisions we made was to include fresh fruit,” Pendery said. “Denny’s, IHOP, Bob Evans, none of them had fresh fruit in 1995.”

Open up

While standard First Watch hours of operation are 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Pendery encourages managers to open at 6:55 a.m. and never bring out the brooms to close down exactly at 2:30 p.m. There’s nothing worse, he said, then trying to open the door to a restaurant a few minutes early and being locked out.

Likewise for eating a late lunch while employees scurry about cleaning up.

“Make people feel welcome,” he said. “Make a difference like that, and you can get a customer for life.”

Easy going

Pendery encourages First Watch leaders to keep things simple.

“Don’t take yourself too seriously,” he said. “We are making bacon and eggs — really good bacon and eggs — but have fun.”

Lead the way

The culture of each First Watch is defined by behavior, starting from the top.

“I don’t think you can buy or sell culture. You can create culture and make it better by your actions,” Pendery said.

“At First Watch, you are here to make a difference. If you just took a job, I’m sorry, but if you want to be part of a culture and be a leader, then you’re at the right place.”

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