First Watch's Changing of the Guard

Exec Moves

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING TUESDAY JUN 12, 2018

First Watch Restaurants just promoted one of its lead executives to the top of the food chain. Chris Tomasso, president of the University Park-based company, got promoted on Monday to be chief executive officer, with outgoing CEO Ken Pendery transitioning to executive chairman of the board. “We’ve doubled the size of the company a couple times over the years I have been here,” Tomasso tells SRQ. “I want to continue along the path we’ve been on of growing very successfully.”

Tomasso originally joined First Watch in 2006 as the company’s first chief marketing officer, and in 2015 he moved into the president’s office working closely with Pendery. In the nearly 12 years Tomasso worked in some executive capacity here, the restaurant chain has grown from 60 locations in nine states to 330 locations in 29 states. And he still sees room for growth, especially with a brand synonymous with the most important meal of the day.

“The breakfast segment for a while now is the only part of the restaurant industry that has grown,” he says, something that helped catapult the Florida-based chain into a nationally loved brand. The company recently opened new locations in markets like Philadelphia and Detroit, and will soon serve its first breakfasts in New Jersey. 

But the Sarasota-Bradenton area remains a “core” market for the company, Tomasso says. He notes you can find locations throughout the Gulf Coast region, notably on every interstate exit sans Clark Road. The most recent local addition came with a Fruitville Road location in December. Meanwhile, the company serves as name sponsor for the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon & Relay, and it continues a significant partnership with Forty Carrots Family Center. And as the company grows its reach across the nation, Tomasso says there will be job growth at the corporate offices that will benefit this area.

Don’t expect a major shift in direction for the company. With a long-planned transition and a working relationship between Tomasso and Pendery that lasted years, the company’s strategic moves have been set with Tomasso in the room. Pendery in a statement expressed confidence in the strength of the company and in Tomasso’s leadership. “During the past 32 years, I have had the tremendous honor to work alongside some incredible people, and I am so proud of the company we have built,” Pendery said. “Chris and I have worked together for more than a decade, and he has played an integral role in the success of First Watch during that time. I am confident that he will approach this new role with the same passion and commitment to our culture that he has demonstrated these past 12 years, and I believe he is the ideal person to maintain our success and culture during this period of accelerated and aggressive growth.”

Before landing at First Watch, Tomasso serves as vice president of marketing for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and vice president of worldwide marketing for Hard Rock Cafe International. But when asked whether his past companies offer a path for First Watch, he demurs. First Watch seems to be doing fine, with a grip of foodie trends kept fresh by rotating seasonal menus and with a growing fan base that loves the quality and innovation found in First Watch kitchens. “We are creating our own legacy,” he says.

Pictured: Chris Tomasso, First Watch president and CEO

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