How Ken Pendery ensures First Watch consistently delivers service excellence Featured

8:50pm EDT July 31, 2011
How Ken Pendery ensures First Watch consistently delivers service excellence

Since he joined First Watch Restaurants Inc. more than 20 years ago, Ken Pendery has grown the company to 83 locations across 12 states. Though he’s significantly expanded the footprint of the breakfast-focused restaurant concept, he is less concerned with his own tracks than he is of the customers going in and out of his restaurants.

“I think the biggest challenge of the last couple years has just been traffic,” says Pendery, who is the president and CEO of the Bradenton, Fla.-based company. “I felt that working with the challenges of what we now look back on as the bubble — where there were just a lot of restaurants opening and we were competing for traffic — it was just more and more competition.”

Yet even with the added challenge of a turbulent economy, Pendery has avoided making any major changes at his restaurants. He reinforces customer loyalty by doing what he’s always done — keep First Watch employees focused on providing consistent, quality customer service.

“We’ve really just wanted to maintain value and service and make sure we give the same experience, if not better, than people have grown to expect,” Pendery says.

“We have not changed our recipes. We have not cut back on food, meaning we have tried to continue to deliver the excellent service that we’re known for at the same price without cutting anything. We’ve been very adamant that we’re not going to take something away, that we’re going to make sure that people find us of the same or greater value.”

The result of this service-focused philosophy is tried and true. Today, First Watch is the largest, privately owned, daytime-only restaurant nationwide with more locations being added every year.

Here’s how Pendery leads his team of 2,000 employees to deliver top service for First Watch customers across the country.

Communicate your values

To ensure execution across national locations, a CEO needs capable managers who can motivate service excellence and handle customer issues successfully at the local level. Though Pendery splits his time between the corporate office and First Watch restaurants, his visits to different locations aren’t about micromanaging employees. He sees them as an opportunity to keep the company’s service mission and values front of mind through clear and regular communication.

“They are there every day,” he says. “Just because I get to every restaurant two or three times a year on average … really is fairly meaningless. But I think for them to see and know that I travel that much is meaningful to the fact that we do what we say we’re going to do and let’s keep the focus on our service.

“We have monthly service meetings and we talk about our five steps of service and we talk about our ten commandments. We constantly talk about it. We don’t just post it on the wall and say, ‘Yeah, we believe in this.’ We talk about the speed of our service and the friendliness of our service constantly.”

Providing opportunities for employees and management to routinely communicate creates a natural pipeline for identifying and delegating customer issues more effectively.

“We communicate a lot, and I think communication brings focus and that focus brings the commitment to our speed of service and the quality of our food,” Pendery says.

“There could be a break down in food. There could be a snowstorm coming. There could be a customer comment about reservations or no reservations. Whatever it may be, that’s talked about at a weekly meeting, a monthly meeting, a server meeting and theoretically all that gets pushed uphill so that we have conversations about it.”

If you develop strong organization wide communication, information flows more efficiently from managers to team members but also from team members to management. Ultimately, you and your managers will have a more accurate picture of the customer experience and how it can be improved at the national and local levels.

“[I] love to have servers who give me feedback on what does or does not work,” Pendery says. “I keep extensive notes, and I’m always referring back to that. We just had our regional vice president meeting last week and I brought out two years worth of notes, things that we’ve covered in the last year, highlights, things that we’ve done and reacted to well or things that we forgot about or things that, ‘Well, we didn’t push this one very far.’ But again, it’s all meant to be a strong collaborative nature.

Be dependable

Creating a great customer experience comes down to more than having a great product or service. It’s about delivering that great product or service on a consistent basis. Pendery recognizes that First Watch’s customer loyalty doesn’t come from meeting people’s expectations one time or even most times, but every time.

“The reason we have our degree of success is that people have grown to count on us for our level of quality food and our level of service,” Pendery says. “I always tell people in presentations, that’s why we go back to the dry cleaner in our neighborhood or the place that works on our car. We go back to places that we can count on, for whatever service we have, and I think they go back to restaurants or they go back to First Watch — they being our customer — because they have grown to count on us for our performance.”

But no matter how many good experiences customers have with your business, one bad experience can change their whole perception of whether or not they can count on you. Day to day, there are always things that can wrong, so it’s up to the CEO to keep people committed to doing the right things.

“You always have a staff member that breaks down,” Pendery says. “There are human errors that happen and people have a bad day or something like that. I’m not suggesting for a moment that our staff of people is perfect or that we don’t have a fundamental flaw that can happen. But I will argue, and I would support, that day in and day out we execute very, very well. I think that my style is to compliment that execution and to encourage a collaborative nature in our challenges and feedback and things that come our way that we have to pay attention to.”

Even though Pendery wants to please the majority of customers, he’s also careful about pursuing trends that could compromise First Watch’s service promise. When it comes to how people like their food, customer feedback is obviously mixed.

“We’re 27 years old,” Pendery says. “So people will tell us don’t change a thing, because they don’t want to see something change, and on the other hand, people will say the trend is turkey bacon or something like that. But that can be a little bit misleading.

“It all sounds and reads really well, but how much can you enact or do tomorrow morning? Is the trend short term or long term, and is it really meaningful? Years ago you might remember that everybody just jumped on the Atkins diet. Everybody wanted to put it on the menu, and six months later, it comes off the menu.”

That’s why it’s important to make sure the consumer’s perceived interest is real before fully committing resources to a new product or trend. To find out if a new menu item has the potential for long-term success, Pendery first puts it on the First Watch specials menu to see how customers respond.

“We run it through our specials category and if it’s successful, we’ll do it more as a special, and if it’s really successful we run it onto our menu because it’s so popular,” he says. “We’ve always done it that way and we continue to do it that way.”

If you begin facing ongoing challenges related to consistency, it may be because you’re pursuing an idea or strategy that doesn’t fit with who you are as a business. When something isn’t working, you need to re-examine whether it aligns your company’s core values and mission.

“We just have to understand what we’re in business to do,” Pendery says. “There are just some things that First Watch — we probably can’t do. Not that we haven’t talked about it for a gazillion years, but we don’t do espresso for instance. … We don’t think we can execute espresso. It takes too much time and probably drives the average check too high, as an example. So we can’t be everything to all people.”

Know your customer

While Pendery won’t change his philosophy on service, he understands the value of being flexible to give his customers what they want. He knows that when it comes to breakfast, people can be more specific about what they like and don’t like. That’s why at First Watch customers are encouraged to customize their orders any way they can. More than half of the orders from diners have some variation from the original menu item, whether it’s adding cheese or skimping on the bacon.

“Very simply I think we reinforce well: ‘If we can, we will,’” Pendery says. “When a customer says, ‘Can I?’ Almost when those words come out of their mouth — if we have it, we’ll do it. And I think the service staff and the kitchen is well trained and communicates well with the consumer. If they want it and we have the ability to do it, then it’s simply done. That’s how it happens.

“I think that proves the point that people like to have it their way, and we do that well. We fit into the marketplace well and we’re considered local, because we execute that special request to their liking.”

By staying attuned to who you are and who you aren’t as a company, you’ll be able to highlight your areas of strength and eliminate your weaknesses. Pendery says it’s not about following the trend but examining the trend and educating yourself on what it means for your business.

“Luckily, we have a tendency to look at things and not react too quickly,” he says. “Maybe that’s part of our weakness that we don’t react too quickly, or maybe it’s part of our strength.

“I stand pretty tough on the methods by which we’ve been successful: our 10 commandments, our five steps of service, the speed of our food, the quality of our food, the cleanliness of our restaurants. This is not space science here. This is service.”

By establishing First Watch’s reputation for consistent, quality, customer-focused service, Pendery keeps loyal customers coming back while adding new ones every day. In 2011, he hopes to reach the milestone of opening First Watch’s 100th restaurant.

“I think the best advice is always set is stay true to your core values and stay true to your mission,” Pendery says. “I work really hard to run a business with integrity. I work really hard to live up to the promises we make to our employees, our management, our leadership and our customers.

“At the end of the day there are a lot of great restaurants serving omelets and pancakes and salads and sandwiches and chimichangas, specialty items like we have. There’s a lot of a restaurants that do that and do it well, but I think the reason we are successful with it and the reason we do it well is because A, we’re very consistent or we work very hard to be very consistent, and you earn a reputation on that consistency. You earn a reputation on the speed of service, the friendliness of service and the quality of your food on the most consistent basis. That’s what people come back for because they can count on you.”

How to reach: First Watch Restaurants Inc., (941) 907-9800 or

The Pendery File

Ken Pendery

President and CEO

First Watch Restaurants Inc.

Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio

Education: B.A. from Indiana University

Favorite First Watch menu item: eggs benedict

On problem-solving: I think the biggest thing that a lot of times companies do, and we certainly have done it from time to time as well, is we try to fix things with a fix rather than go back to the base or the fundamental or the foundation of the decision. It’s fix things with a Band-Aid whether than go back and really understand where the true root of the challenge is, and in the restaurant business, I always feel that the root of the challenge is always back to the base, which is the food, what you manufacturer. If we are having problems with pancakes or we’re having problems with eggs or we’re having problems with bacon, go back to the root of the cooking. Go back to the root of the product. Find what the challenge may be and then understand it from that. Don’t just make a switch or put a patch on something, but really understand the base of the problem.