Restaurant ExperienceRestaurant Sales Strategy

First Watch – The Brand to Watch During an Industry wide Traffic Decline

One of my favorite sayings comes from Winston Churchill, “Success is walking from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” While many in the restaurant industry have risen to great success, there are also those that continue to persevere, not so much for the money, but for the passion. They can’t imagine doing anything else with their lives, so enthralled are they by the energy and social engagement unique to this business model. 

And so, for those who may feel like they’re deep in the trenches at times, we thought we’d give you some inspiration—a role model of sorts and a glimpse into a restaurant that seems to have figured out the current demand in this topsy-turvy industry. 

Let’s take a closer look at First Watch and why they still report a significant increase in traffic, despite a wider industry decline. 

The Model

First Watch is a national brand focused on the breakfast and lunch crowd. Period. From someone with a background in fine dining and a mantra that repeated the importance of dinner service, it’s fascinating to watch this brand that’s focused on a simpler and, apparently, more sustainable model, thrive. 

Started in 1983 in California, the company made its way to Sarasota in 1986. Today, Florida is the largest single market, though the company and franchise-owned establishments can be found in 28 states. It started with health-conscious options and a seasonal menu with fresh ingredients and has not faltered. A few of its popular entrees include the seasonal Braised Short Rib Omelet, Quinoa Power Bowl, and Farm Stand Breakfast Tacos. 

The brand’s ambiance is an upscale café, and they are committed to retaining the same approach across all units. Whereas other brands sometimes forget their essence as they grow, this is a company that will stay true to form no matter its size.

Throughout its years, the brand has kept a wary eye on the horizon, staying abreast of changes and food trends. It answered the call for sustainably sourced ingredients and the demand for lighter options. For instance, First Watch sources coffee from independent female farmers in Columbia.

The Culture  

We all remember the post-pandemic world of labor shortages, reduced hours, and closed sections. Although, First Watch’s memory may be slightly different than the rest. It developed a reputation as a company that cared for its employees. In addition, they offered a promise few restaurants can declare—no night shifts.

In 2022, they made Newsweek’s America’s 100 Most Loved Workplaces. Over 10,000 team members recognized First Watch with exceptional employee satisfaction and happiness at work. This list recognizes companies that put respect, appreciation, and care for their employees at the center of their business model. The same year, ADP also recognized them, receiving its Culture at Work Award, reflecting their commitment to creating a thriving culture unparalleled in the restaurant industry and a quality of life for its team. 

The Success

According to Nation’s Restaurant News, industrywide trends reveal a traffic decline of 3% in 2022. First Watch, on the other hand, reported a 7.7% increase in traffic growth. A restaurant that opened in Virginia in November 2022 generated $110,000 in sales in its fifth week in operation and currently averages almost $90,000, setting the record for First Watch openings. They now have more than 445 restaurants across the nation.

Expansion plans include continuing to locate restaurants in highly visible locations. And, while committed to their original nature, like many of us, there are some changes that arose due to the pandemic that remain in effect. For example, they delved into waitlist management and online ordering technology and added pickup areas and parking spots dedicated to to-go and carry-out orders. These changes remain in effect as it hurtles toward its long-term goal of 2,200 restaurants, according to Florida Trend.

Because they are only open 7.5 hours daily, they’re keenly aware of the need to maximize sales and increase check averages. In 2020, they launched their cocktail menu with craft cocktails like Pomegranate Sunrise. Even here, they stayed true to their health-conscious vibe, juicing fresh fruits and vegetables in-house every morning. 

In 2023, same-store sales are up 15.7%, and traffic growth is up 8.5%. If you’re looking for a mentor or just some inspiration, this is the brand to keep your eye on. 


Why do they call it First Watch?

The name First Watch is a nautical term referencing the first work shift on a ship. First Watch restaurants are open from 7:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day. 

Who owns First Watch?

First Watch is majority owned by Advent International, one of the world’s largest private-equity firms.

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