First Watch Restaurant Group executive Lilah Taha-Rippett was in desperate need of truck drivers in August 2020.
She wasn’t moving. And she also wasn’t seeking to hire anyone at that time — at least not truckers. Instead, Taha-Rippett (her first name is pronounced like Layla) was trying to find some drivers hauling stuff for U.S. Foods. First Watch, one of the leading and largest breakfast-brunch-lunch chains in the country, with more than 500 locations, had just switched suppliers. And Taha-Rippett, who oversees supply chain for the east Manatee County-based company, wanted to thank the people driving that switch by giving them First Watch gift cards and personal appreciation.
So Taha-Rippett, 65, drove up and down Interstate 75 to track down the drivers. “I wanted them to know they mattered,” Taha-Rippett says. “I wanted them to know that what they were doing was important.”
That mindset, of including everyone in the process of change and elevating the people around her in that process, is partly how Taha-Rippett has built such a successful career in supply chain management. She’s a sought-after speaker on key food and beverage industry topics, in addition to talking about transformational leadership and personal growth. And with First Watch, where she’s been senior vice president of supply chain since 2017, Taha-Rippett, say company officials, has created a responsive, efficient and proactive supply chain team amid the upheaval of the pandemic.
“I am so fortunate to be in my industry of choice,” says Taha-Rippett. “I love being in food service.”
Taha-Rippett is also known among the First Watch leadership team as a get-stuff-done executive. Part of that is from growing up in Dearborn, Michigan, a first-generation American daughter of Lebanese parents who owned and ran a grocery store. Not only from a prove-yourself immigrant work ethic, but it’s also where Taha-Rippett discovered her spunk — and learned a valuable lesson in restaurant customer service.
That stems from when Taha-Rippett, frustrated with working for the family business as a kid without a salary, decided, at 16, to get a “real job,” at a McDonald’s. She and a friend both got gigs at the Golden Arches.
Early into the job, a manager told the teens they had to clean the bathrooms. The friend balked. And then quit. But Taha-Rippett stayed. And she pressed the manager on why the newbies had to clean toilets. The manager answered with a question of his own. “I know people are coming here for the burgers and shakes, but why do you think they come back?”
Taha-Rippett shrugged. “‘They come back,” she says the manager responded, “‘because the bathrooms are clean.’”
“That’s all you had to tell me,” Taha-Rippett says. “I stayed and cleaned the bathroom.”
That lesson has resonated with Taha-Rippett for decades and she now often advises colleagues, mentees and others: “Don’t say no to something you hate: it could be good for you.”
She’s also parlayed that mindset into multiple leadership positions with several restaurant companies, a big one being Tampa-based Bloomin’ Brands, where she was vice president of supply chain from 2003 to 2014. Taha-Rippett has also held strategy, purchasing and operations leadership positions with Uno Restaurants, Qdoba Mexican Grill and, directly prior to First Watch, Benihana.
One of the core tasks Taha-Rippett took on when she joined First Watch six years ago was to make sure the food supply side of the business kept up with the rapid growth. Publicly traded First Watch, with $719.18 million in revenue in 2022, has come through on the growth side. It’s now a national leader in the breakfast-brunch-lunch market, which it essentially created when it opened the first First Watch, in California, in 1983.
Part of Taha-Rippet’s strategy is to plan way ahead. In summer 2023 for instance, she and her First Watch supply chain team of seven, in conjunction with the company’s head chef, were already looking at ingredients and menu items for early 2025. She helps keep the team focused on the long-term with daily huddles, where they go through the day coming up, she says, for “as long as it takes to pour and drink a cup of coffee.”
The strategy also includes holding the supply chain department’s mission — “keep First Watch first in line,” she says — close by. That’s carried out by using advanced software and, Taha-Rippett stresses, working together in a team-first environment where no position is more important than the next one.
While big picture supply chain worries constantly linger, from hurricanes to avian flu, Taha-Rippett’s true up-at-night worry is having to tell one of the 12,000+ First Watch employees working in one of the restaurants to “86” something — industry lingo for being out of an item. “If there’s a dishwasher in one of our restaurants who doesn’t have the right cleaning chemicals (then) we are making his job harder, " Taha-Rippett says. “And I take that personally.”