Nathan Zimmer is speaking from a restaurant renovation in Naples, Florida, in the midst of the typical two-week turnaround that it takes to make over a location. Because locations are open from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., sites never have to actually shut down for their remodels. Zimmer, director of construction at First Watch Restaurants, has cobbled together a special ops team of carpenters roaming the country from renovation to renovation with trucks and trailers that house every possible tool a carpenter could ever need during the process.
As Zimmer checks in with his team in Naples, he says assembling this renovation squad is one of his most impactful accomplishments since coming to First Watch four years ago. Picking a single achievement is tough, however, given the radical change the restaurant chain has engaged, quadrupling its locations over a seven-year period. “Even though our restaurants have been around for almost 30 years, it’s in recent years that we’ve really started to grow, making us one of the oldest startup restaurant brands in the country.”
The director of construction says the business was in his blood; his father was a commercial builder who started his own company in the early ‘80s. Zimmer knew construction sites better than most before he was even out of high school. Even after his father left the business during the 2006 building slowdown, Zimmer had gone on to work for OSI (now Bloomin’ Brands) and found that its leadership team would wind up significantly impacting his future.
As First Watch initiated what would become a series of rapid expansion, Zimmer saw many of his mentors join the company and became intrigued. “One of the guys that I had built many of the Bonefish Grills in the country with had let me know that he needed help, and I was definitely up for the challenge,” Zimmer says. The challenge was extreme.
Zimmer and his team built over 36 restaurants in 2019 on top of his hit squad renovating 50 more. The plan is to open 51 more restaurants in 2020 and extend further into new markets. His renovation team has less than 10 restaurants to renovate out of 400 total, but First Watch is already looking into the next version of their brand, which will prompt the renovation teams to start all over again. “That’s what keeps restaurants relevant,” Zimmer says. “We try to refresh the look every five years or so, to keep our edge.” Zimmer doesn’t name names himself, but well-known chains have been shuttering their doors at rapid rates while First Watch continues to expand.
Part of First Watch’s continued success on its construction side, Zimmer says, is that the team is able to operate on such a lean scale. “We’ve adopted cloud-based programs throughout the whole company that allow us to stay connected in real-time and really cut down on margin for error,” Zimmer says. “We also don’t rely too heavily on meetings more than our once-a-week ‘pipeline’ meeting where we talk about everything from restaurant openings to potential sites to everything in between.” Zimmer says the development team is actually two-thirds remote, so technology is critical in keeping the First Watch builders and business on the same page.
Zimmer says operating leanly lends itself well to company culture. “Having more people doesn’t necessarily make things easier or faster,” the construction director says. “Ease of communication from directors to CEOs is pretty open, and that might be because we don’t have too much of what you might consider middle-management to work through.” When it comes to the building teams, operating quickly but in concert with the rest of the business creates the perfect formula for fast expansion.
As more First Watch locations are built, Zimmer says he takes pride that he’s able to inject some of his own personal touches into the final product. Artist Angela Delaplane, whom Zimmer attended college with, is primarily responsible (via she and her network of artists) for the murals that adorn the walls of First Watch restaurants. Zimmer says that each mural is made to reflect the communities in which they operate, from aquarium scenes and ocean life in Boca Raton to longhorns in Dallas. “Part of our look is that mural that ties us to the community, and it’s an aspect of the project I always enjoy.”
While Zimmer is still busy in Naples, he says that he always thinks back to the entrance of his team’s office. “Our door says ‘Development,’” Zimmer says. “I think we have arguably the best development team for a retail brand that’s working today.” As his network of general contractors get to work on new sites and his covert team of carpenters moves on to the next renovation site, Zimmer will move on from Naples, continuing First Watch’s 30-year-startup boom.
“We would like to congratulate Nathan Zimmer and the rest of the team at First Watch on the incredible growth they have experienced over the past few years. It’s been a privilege to work with them as their vendor and partner for their new restaurant furniture package. We look forward to continuing our relationship as they continue to grow and expand.”
-Jon Bremer, Business Development Manager