How Chain Restaurants Feed Millions Of Customers

At First Watch, new menu items must be produced on a massive scale.

You might slide into a booth at your nearest location of a national chain restaurant and notice that some seasonal specials are available. It's always smart for restaurants to keep the offerings fresh, but getting them onto the menu is much more complicated than you might think.

From farmers, to truck drivers, to the kitchen staff, countless people take part in creating every single new menu item offered to diners. First Watch, a breakfast and lunch chain with more than 520 restaurants in 29 states and more on the way, has refined the process to a science.

At any given time, there are five new menu items in development, each waiting for their turn to be served. According to Shane Schaibly, First Watch's senior vice president of culinary strategy, and Lilah Taha-Rippett, its senior vice president of supply chain management, each new menu item requires at least a year of testing—sometimes more—to get all the components in alignment.

Along with its usual menu mainstays, First Watch rolls out specials five times a year, each for about 10 weeks at a time. The restaurant just finished the New Year's group it calls Jump Start, and it has since moved on to spring specials. There will also be summer, fall, and holiday items, many of which have already been hammered out. Here's how it's done.

How First Watch builds its breakfast menu

Schaibly says the restaurant chain, which posted $1.1 billion in sales last year, gets menu ideas from many places, including independent restaurants, and it keeps an eye on whatever's going viral on social media. That's how the company came up with the Brooklyn Breakfast Sandwich, offered earlier this year.

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The sandwich, which took two years to develop, featured shaved pastrami, gruyere cheese, roasted onions, an over easy cage-free egg, pickled red onions, arugula, mayo, and Dijon mustard on a griddled everything brioche bun. Like any other menu item, taste came first.

"Our true north is all about flavor," Schaibly says, noting that the chain has had "great success in handhelds," meaning breakfast sandwiches. But importantly, any sandwich dreamed up by the restaurant "can't be boring or mainstream."

Once an idea is developed, First Watch moves on to its farmers and other suppliers. Can they source enough ingredients to serve all those restaurants? "We would not even allow ourselves to fall in love with something unless they can produce it," Schaibly says.

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For the Brooklyn Breakfast Sandwich, First Watch needed 80,000 pounds of pastrami per week from its meat supplier in Los Angeles. If the supplier couldn't provide it, the sandwich would have been set aside. But with the second sample sent by the supplier, Taha-Rippett says she knew it would be a success. "When I took a bite out of it, the juices ran down my chin," she said.

Once the dish is set, the team works on the logistics of stocking its component ingredients. This involves looking into what it already has in its restaurants' pantries.

First Watch does not stock bagels, so it decided to build the sandwich on its existing brioche bun; this was elevated with the addition of butter and everything spice. The restaurant serves eggs in many different forms already, and keeps gruyere cheese on hand for quiches. The same is true of onions, and to pickle them for the Brooklyn Breakfast Sandwich, the chain used the leftover beet juice from the beets it uses on salads. Schaibly felt the sandwich needed a green touch, which meant arugula, already a staple.

Each new and limited-time-only dish is priced according to First Watch's cost to produce it, taking into account the expense of newly ordered ingredients, the way it can leverage existing ingredients, and the price of similar menu items. While people in urban areas can expect to pay $17 or more for a similar breakfast sandwich, Schaibly says his mostly suburban audience won't spend that much. So, the Brooklyn sandwich cost $13.79.

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"We priced it to move," he explains.

Taha-Rippett notes that coordination with everyone involved is crucial: "When we're ready to rock and roll, we have a consolidated meeting. Everyone hears the same message."

Adds Schaibly, "We never get to the five yard line and [have] somebody say, 'We're not doing this.'"

Now on the menu at First Watch

First Watch is repeating the same development process with its new Shrimp & Grits dish, which joined the menu this month. Since many diners outside the South may not be as familiar with it, Schaibly says this version is a little lighter than the traditional dish.

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It starts with reducing chicken stock to create a base (though it isn't as rich as shrimp and grits with a dark roux). First Watch already serves shrimp and andouille sausage in other dishes, and some menu items feature Cajun seasoning, so those are all incorporated. Bob's Red Mill brand grits form the base of the dish.

Like the Brooklyn sandwich, the Shrimp & Grits dish at First Watch costs $14.79, a price achieved in part by sheer scale. "An independent restaurant needs to price it at $21," Schaibly says. "We're serving it one hundred times a week times 500 restaurants. Our customer doesn't sit down and see sticker shock."

First Watch is expanding further

Soon, First Watch will expand into its next markets: New England and Las Vegas, its first new regions since it entered the Chicago area in 2021. In all, the chain expects to open between 51 and 57 new restaurants in 2024, which will bring it close to 600 locations nationwide.

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"Whenever we go into a new market, we are very thoughtful and strategic about the way we do it," Schaibly says. The company looks at area demographics, neighborhoods that could support a First Watch, and how quickly multiple locations can be built.

Both Schaibly and Taha-Rippett are constantly traveling the country, visiting blueberry farmers and avocado growers or jumping on boats with shrimpers. "We have to be sure the restaurant managers and teams know the product doesn't just come in a box," Taha-Rippett says.

"I do take a lot of pride in understanding the process and telling that story with a smile on my face," says Schaibly. "An avocado takes 14 months to grow out and come to harvest. Somebody had to love that tree to have those avocados on that plate."

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