First Watch Evolves to Attract Younger Customers

By Justine Griffinbilde

http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20150527/article/150529734?p=2&tc=pg

Like nearly all other industries, the restaurant business has metamorphosed through the years.

Some national and regional chains are feeling the push to compete with small businesses, as millennials and Generation X consumers flock to support hole-in-the-wall eateries within their communities that reach a younger customer through robust social media presence and online apps.

First Watch Restaurants, the Manatee County-based chain of breakfast, brunch and lunch cafes, also has evolved through the years to meet the demands of these new customers.

This year, First Watch introduced a new urban layout in restaurants across the country, including two sites in Florida: Largo and Estero.

The “urban farm” design is bright, colorful and modern. The build-out looks like something you’d see on a busy street in a bigger metro area than Sarasota.

“The new concept is more in line with the customer First Watch is targeting,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a food research firm based in Chicago. “It’s not fancier, but it plays on freshness and the importance of being local.”

First Watch has expanded into more urban areas in recent months — such as Denver and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area — where reaching a younger demographic is key.

Inside the new restaurant, the dining room has funky light fixtures and exposed brick walls. An array of blackboards make up the host and check-in counter, where messages can change daily.

One wall is devoted to old wooden crates that once would have shipped fresh eggs and other goods that the restaurant might use inside.

“Breakfast and the farm naturally go together,” said Richard Renninger, First Watch’s chief development officer, who helped come up with the new design. “But it has an urban look that makes customers feel like they’re still in the hustle bustle of their community.”

It took some time, and a lot of tweaking, to come up with a design that fit the needs of the aging baby boomer demographic and the millennial and Generation Xers, Renninger said.

“It was important for us to create a new space that is comfortable for all our customers, but still somewhere where millennials would want to hang out,” he said.

This is the third redesign of the restaurant that First Watch has implemented since the chain began in the 1980s.

The restaurants in Sarasota County showcase both older looks. The company plans to renovate some properties in Florida next year.

“First Watch is making all the right moves. They’re following millennial and Generation X dining habits — which tend to be more health conscious for themselves and their young families,” said Brian Connors, a consultant with Miami’s Davis Connors Hospitality.

To attract more younger customers, First Watch also debuted a new smartphone app service at its restaurants this year through “NoWait.”

NoWait is a free app that allows users to compare restaurant wait times within a 30-mile radius of wherever they are.

Users can then add their name and the size of their party to a wait list. The app notifies users when they are close to being seated.

“It’s sort of like they’ve found the Holy Grail,” Connors said. “It’s the perfect concept that doesn’t discriminate against the baby boomers either — it’s the type of restaurant my parents would go to and feel like they’re a part of their local community.”

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