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Restaurant chain first in line for kindness

Being nice, at First Watch, isn’t only for greeting customers. It’s a company-wide belief that kindness goes a long way.

  • Leadership
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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 then come back with the receipt, and they will cut him a check. “That’s really inconvenient,” says 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 says. “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, which did $354 million in revenue in 2018, up 22.9% from $288 million in 2017. Nationally recognized in its niche, First Watch has some 7,300 employees spread through 400 nationwide locations.  

First Watch, at which Pendery was there at the beginning to help open the first restaurant in California in 1983, has grown beyond his wildest expectations, he says. 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 a brand.

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 east Manatee County headquarters, 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 says.

'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.' Ken Pendery, First Watch

The Business Observer recently attended one of Pendery’s FARM presentations — applicable to any business in customer service (which is any business).

• Kindness matters: A king-like mindset some restaurant managers have is counterproductive and shreds corporate culture. “You can enforce rules,” he told the audience of about 30 managers. “But be nice, and treat everyone with respect.” Pendery adds: “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 says. He adds 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.

• Different take: On First Watch’s history, Pendery says beating competitors requires savvy marketing — not just better bacon and eggs. “We didn’t know what segment we fit in when we started,” he says. “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,” Pendery says, “was to include fresh fruit. 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 and never bring out the brooms to close down exactly at 2:30. There’s nothing worse, Pendery says, 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 says. “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 says. “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 says. “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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