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First Watch co-founder, former CEO dies at 70

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 4:45 p.m. March 6, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Ken Pendery
Ken Pendery
File photo
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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The leadership — and life — lessons people absorbed and learned from working with, knowing and being around longtime restaurant executive Ken Pendery were legion. Some teachings were simple and obvious. Others were more nuanced.

Be nice. Treat everyone with respect. Don’t over complicate or over-think solutions. Always do the right thing. Those were just some of the phrases Pendery lived by, and taught to others, both by example and in conversation. 

Pendery died Monday, surrounded by family in his home in Denver, after a battle with Multiple System Atrophy, a rare neurological disorder. He was 70.

By title Pendery was co-founder, CEO and, in his last official role, executive chairman of First Watch Restaurant Group. The east Manatee County-based breakfast-brunch-lunch pioneer has grown to 520 restaurants in 29 states since Pendery and his business partner John Sullivan opened the first one in California in 1983. It posted $1.1 billion in systemwide sales in 2023.

But Pendery, to dozens, if not hundreds, of First Watch employees and executives, was a mentor, friend and go-to source of kind-hearted humor and sensible, reasoned dad-like advice. (He was a real-life dad as well: He and his wife, Jenny, have two adult children and four grandchildren.) Pendery was also a noted community leader and philanthropist, supporting groups from Selby Gardens in Sarasota to The Out-of-Door Academy.

“The first word that comes to mind when talking about Ken is kindness,” says First Watch CEO Chris Tomasso, who worked closely with Pendery for about 15 years — traveling together often for store openings, industry conferences, investor meetings and more. “Anyone who came in contact with him, that’s what they always said.”

Tomasso says his phone was buzzing with texts and calls in the first few days after Pendery died, with many expressing how wonderful a man Pendery was — including people who only had one interaction with him. “There’s a big hole in my heart right now,” Tomasso says, 

Multiple people from First Watch — including former employees — wrote tributes to Pendery on social media upon the news of his death. “You have had an immeasurable impact on my life,” wrote Eleni Kouvatsos, who worked at First Watch for eight years, in corporate communications and investor relations, on LinkedIn. Kouvatsos left the company last August. “I know dozens of others would say the same about your impact on theirs, not to mention your lasting impact on our industry.”

Pendery, who loved chatting about sports, family and people, connected with many others outside the restaurant world. One is longtime ESPN college basketball announcer Dick Vitale, who has partnered with First Watch for his cancer charity. “I always had great admiration and respect for Ken as he was a fantastic asset to our area,” Vitale wrote in a text message to the Business Observer. “I loved chatting with him at his pride and joy (other than his family) in the First Watch in Lakewood Ranch. We would constantly talk about the glory days of Bob Knight at Indiana, his alma mater.”

Pendery was born and raised in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, on the Ohio River opposite Cincinnati. He majored in finance at Indiana, and several who knew the young Pendery say they were aware he was destined to lead something. Pendery’s cousin Steve Pendery, in a 2011 interview with the Business Observer, said Ken, even in the summer, sought jobs and activities with a higher purpose. “He always wanted to have a job that taught him something or gave him some responsibility,” said Steve Pendery. “He looked for something with some meat to it.”

Pendery and Sullivan moved from California to Florida in 1986, opening one First Watch in south Sarasota and another in Naples. They moved here to be closer to some family and be in a vacation spot. A query that came their way often in the early days: Why not stay open past the mid-afternoon and serve dinner? 

The simple answer, at least in the beginning, was they wanted to have time to play golf and go home to their families. Four decades later the company’s hours — 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. — are a calling card, both for essentially creating a dining category and in employee recruitment and retention, with no nighttime hours.

Ken Pendery helped build east Manatee County-based First Watch into one of the largest restaurant companies in the region.
File photo

Growth came slow and steady at first at First Watch. Then it came in bunches, then through acquisitions, private equity investment and some franchising, and in October 2021, an IPO that raised $170 million.

Pendery transitioned from CEO to executive chairman in 2018 and retired from the company’s board in 2022. He and his wife lived in south Sarasota until they moved to Denver to be closer to family. While still local, Tomasso would pick up Pendery nearly every Saturday, sometimes on Sunday, and they would have breakfast together at the First Watch in the Square South plaza.

One of Pendery’s biggest legacies with First Watch is his Five Steps of Service — which he first wrote on the back of a napkin in 1987 — and his 10 Commandments, now Commitments. Those tenets, from “welcome with warmth to “act with infectious positivity,” are actively trained and practiced in each restaurant today. 

And Pendery, up until retirement, talked about those values and more, especially how to maintain a strong corporate culture, when he greeted a new class of First Watch managers at a company training. Those sessions are held inside the First Watch Academy of Restaurant Management at the company headquarters, in what’s known as the FARM. The headquarters complex in University Park opened in summer 2021 and is on the newly named Pendery Place.

“I don’t think you can buy or sell culture. You can create culture and make it better by your actions,” Pendery told some 25 managers at a FARM session in fall 2019. “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.”



Mark Gordon

Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.

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