For First Watch Restaurants Inc. chief marketing officer Chris Tomasso, the breakfast-brunch-lunch concept’s greatest differentiator is its status as “The Daytime Café.” But that positioning occasionally complicates the job of the marketing department.
“We find that we need to educate the consumer about our brand and offering,” Tomasso said in an email conversation with Marketing Executives Group board member Clay Dover. “We oftentimes find that we have to change a behavior of eating breakfast at home, in the car or at the office and create an entirely new occasion, which eventually turns into habit. This is a little harder — especially when entering new markets without the benefit of high brand awareness.”
But the daytime-only restaurant’s positioning has been a successful recruiting tool for managers and operators who are more than eager to change their behavior and stay in the restaurant industry with greater work-life balance, he said.
“Our recruiting message is: ‘No night shifts. Ever.’ That is powerful,” he said. “Our employees can make a very good living and still be home with their families. That has value, especially to the seasoned veterans who have done the 2 a.m. close routine for a period of time and now want a better quality of life while still working in the industry they love.”
It is an industry Tomasso loves as well. He has been a marketing executive for restaurants for more than 20 years, including the past seven at First Watch following vice president roles at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and Hard Rock Café International. At the latter, Tomasso was vice president of worldwide marketing when the company began its growth strategy of rolling out hotels and casinos.
He discussed his role as a marketer for First Watch as the Bradenton, Fla.-based brand looks to begin growing aggressively beyond its base of 110 restaurants in 15 states.
How did First Watch decide to start accelerating growth now, after being around for about 30 years?
First Watch was not conceived in a boardroom with a master plan of having 1,000 restaurants over 10 years; it has grown organically. For the first 20 years, we opened an average of two units a year, and it wasn’t until the past 10 years that we really started to accelerate growth. We effectively managed our growth during the economic downturn and built a solid foundation of restaurants in very diverse markets that proved that our concept was portable and had broad appeal.
We have a very compelling business model that is well-positioned to benefit from the emergence of a few key trends: the growth of breakfast, an increasing focus on health and a heightened importance on value. About 90 of our 110 restaurants are company-owned, and we believe that speaks volumes to current and potential franchisees. Market conditions are favorable for us to continue on our aggressive growth plan that calls for a mix of company-owned and franchised restaurants.
Breakfast drove most of the industry’s growth the past few years. How did increased competition at breakfast from quick-service restaurants affect First Watch?
Everyone realized that Mom was right: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While that has meant increased competition for that meal period, it has also raised consumers’ overall awareness, and we have benefitted from that. More than ever, however, our main competitor is the local,-driven restaurant that offers breakfast and lunch.
How will increased growth affect you and the marketing team?
Periods of rapid growth are the most critical because that is when it is easiest for the wheels to fall off. We are being very careful, thoughtful and methodical in our approach. We have also recently strengthened our leadership team with industry veterans in key roles in real estate and finance who bring experience and perspective that will allow us to make better decisions and avoid some pitfalls along the way.
First and foremost, we are an operations-driven company that has built a foundation focused on making sure every guest leaves happy. It is simple and hard all at the same time, but it definitely makes my job easier.
Looking to the future
Where are you allocating additional resources in 2013 and 2014 and why?
We have definitely stepped up our efforts in regard to culinary strategy. Consumers are much more sophisticated as it relates to ingredients, flavor profiles and their expectations surrounding food. Prior to 2010, we had not made any significant additions to our menu. Recently, we launched a LTO strategy that has increased customer frequency, increased margins, and improved value and variety perceptions while making us more relevant.
A great example of that was our Quinoa Power Bowl that we introduced earlier this year. We were one of the first large-scale concepts to feature quinoa as an entrée, but we weren’t sure if we were too early or how our customers would react. Thankfully, they immediately embraced it, and it became our best-selling individual lunch item. It will be a permanent fixture on our menu beginning next month.
What is the future of your daytime-only segment, and what will separate the competitors?
Breakfast and brunch have been elevated to an occasion that begs for culinary exploration in a more modern, yet comfortable, environment. The days of the cliché ‘egg-y’ theme restaurants heavy in rooster, lace and lattice décor are over. You are starting to see local concepts emerge that are focused on utilizing quality ingredients with a thoughtful approach to sourcing and menu items that are interesting, unique and craveable.
It is an authentic experience, and that is who we are competing with. The last thing we want to do is act like a chain, which is why we do some things that a company of our size typically wouldn’t, such as roast all of our vegetables in-house, make our own granola and salsa, and source as much produce locally as possible and as seasons allow. Constant evolution is key and exactly why we continue to invest in the aspects of our concept that will ensure ongoing relevance.
What other chain do you think does a great job, and why?
I’m drawn to restaurant concepts that focus on delivering great food first, supported by a clearly defined, defendable brand positioning. I’m even more intrigued when that concept also succeeds in introducing a new cuisine, new vernacular or a new way to consume. For me, Piada Italian Street Food fits that description.
They have created a segment within a segment, fast-casual Italian, that while very early in its development is attracting a lot of attention. Although their service model is not unique, they deftly created a menu replete with new, exciting and fun-to-eat items that work well in the build-as-you-go method popularized by Chipotle, while at the same time introducing another culture’s street food to Americans. It will be interesting to see how that segment shakes out.
What marketing trends, within the restaurant industry or without, excite you?
I am excited about the evolving role that technology plays in marketing. The relationship between CMO and CIO continues to become one of mutual dependency. There is still a lot of white space in our industry in regard to aggregating consumer intelligence and using it to deliver more personalized, customized messaging. Overall, I think our industry does a fine job, but in my opinion we lag behind retail as it relates to harvesting and leveraging customer intelligence to craft meaningful messaging that is tailored to individuals based on profiles that have been built on purchase history and other interactions.