- December 13, 2013
When they were kids, Steve Pendery always knew his cousin, Ken Pendery Jr., would be in charge of something or someone someday.
Indeed, when most of the teenagers in suburban Cincinnati looked for fun summer jobs in the late 1960s, Ken Pendery sought work with a greater purpose. “He always wanted to have a job that taught him something or gave him some responsibility,” says Steve Pendery. “He looked for something with some meat to it.”
Ken Pendery was also interested in learning how things work, especially in restaurants. He wanted see the entire symphony come together.
“I guess it's in my personality. I gravitate toward being comfortable making decisions,” Pendery says. “I gravitate toward people who can work toward common goals.”
That gravitation, plus a dose of intellectual curiosity, served Pendery well. So well that Pendery, 57, has been a driving force behind First Watch, a consistently successful national chain of breakfast-lunch-brunch restaurants.
Based in Lakewood Ranch, First Watch has defied the recession that crushed other restaurants chains. Annual revenues, for example, are up 11% since 2008, from $80 million to $89 million in 2010. The company, with corporate-owned stores and a franchise division, has 2,600 employees. It's one of the largest privately owned daytime-only restaurant chains in the country.
Through Pendery's leadership First Watch is also in growth mode. It currently has more than 85 restaurants in 12 states, including 34 in Florida. That number could grow by nearly 20% in 2011, according to Chief Marketing Officer Chris Tomasso, with new locations in Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Nashville and Oklahoma City.
Some of the growth stems from the company's franchise program, which launched in early 2008 after hearing daily for years from potential franchisees who wanted in. The company, says Tomasso in a press release, has three franchise groups that plan to open 12 franchised restaurants in the near future.
The methodical move to add franchise restaurants was textbook Pendery.
First Watch, in fact, mirrors Pendery's methodical personality in many ways: Low-key and unassuming with a hyper-focused attention to detail and a heartfelt desire to do things right the first time. “He never brags or tells people about his personal accomplishments,” says Steve Pendery.
Pendery was born and raised in Fort Thomas, Ky., a town opposite Cincinnati on the Ohio River. He majored in finance at Indiana University, but his double education came when he worked part-time at local restaurants. “That's all I've ever done,” says Pendery.
The original First Watch opened in California in 1983. Another California First Watch soon followed, but in 1986 co-founder John Sullivan and Pendery moved to Sarasota to grow the company in the Sunshine State.
The first two Florida locations were in south Sarasota and Naples. Those early years could be the most entrepreneurial of Pendery's career. Challenges abounded. The location of the Sarasota First Watch, for instance, was in a new shopping plaza near two home communities, The Oaks and Prestancia, that hadn't yet found a niche.
“We were in a new area, and we were introducing people to a new concept,” says Pendery. “We worked pretty hard that first year to get our name out there.”
The first five, even 10 years, were marked mostly by slow and steady growth, says Pendery. The core of the growth strategy holds today, although the pace is faster. That strategy, says Pendery, is to expand based on managers, assistant managers and other employees who want to grow in new stores and markets.
By growing that way, Pendery and First Watch have essentially created a small army of entrepreneurs. Those successful managers and staffers who have grown with the company are one of Pendery's greatest accomplishments. “I think if we've done anything well over the years,” says Pendery, “it's that we continue to develop good people.”
Those people, especially store managers, have the ability to make customer-centric and store-specific decisions. So, based on customer requests, managers can keep a special jam, a certain kind of syrup or a box of Cheerios in stock, even if it's not a company-wide item.
“Those are small but very important decisions,” says Pendery. “They have the unique ability to take care of the restaurants.”
The entrepreneurial managers are guided by the First Watch Credo Card, made up of the chain's 10 commandments, five steps of service and the First Watch promise. Commandments and steps range from resetting tables within 4 ½ minutes to never running out of a menu item to dropping a check halfway through a meal.
The Credo is what Pendery expects to hear, see and eat when he visits a First Watch in Florida and nationwide, which he does every two weeks or so. Pendery's passion on those visits is when he sees how fast the food comes out, how wide the staff smiles are and how clean the plates can be.
Pendery, on the road or at home, is also the type of executive who diligently tries to look to the future — unless there's a big lesson learned in the past.
“I don't look back very often,” says Pendery. “I'm one of those people who just looks ahead.”