Ken Pendery, co-founder of Bradenton-based breakfast chain First Watch, dies at 70

Ken Pendery, First Watch co-founder, longtime CEO and former chairman, died March 4, 2024, after a battle with multiple system atrophy, a rare neurological disorder.

He was 70.

Pendery retired from the company’s board of directors in 2022 after 38 years with the breakfast, brunch and lunch company.

He and co-founder John Sullivan moved the company’s operations from California to Bradenton in the mid-1980s.

His words on the walls of First Watch’s home office serve as a reminder of his philosophy: “Culture is integrity. It’s honesty. It’s respect.”

Pendery assumed the role of CEO in the late 1990s. During his time at the helm, First Watch grew from about 50 restaurants in 1998 to more than 330 in 2018, when he transitioned from CEO to executive chairman.

After working together for 12 years, successor and current CEO and President Chris Tomasso continued to grow the company to more than 450 restaurants by the time Pendery stepped down from the board of directors four years later.

First Watch now operates more than 520 restaurants in 29 states.

First Watch co-founder Pendery dies

“Ken’s impact and influence is — and will forever be — felt throughout our organization,” Tomasso said in a news release.

“He was a mentor and dear friend, and the epitome of the ‘You First’ culture our company is built upon. Everyone who crossed his path is better for it. Our hearts go out to his family, and we will carry his memory fondly,” Tomasso said.

Pendery cared deeply about the value of trust, humility, doing the right thing and having only the highest of standards, the news release said.

Pendery was adamant that the behavior of just one person can strengthen and embolden a culture or destroy it, and he found it his mission to protect the integrity of culture, the company said.

His legacy lives on through First Watch’s “5 Steps of Service,” beginning with “welcome with warmth” and ending with “act with infectious positivity,” at each restaurant.

Pendery is survived by his wife, Jenny; two children, Trey (Maureen) and Libby (Kevin); and four grandchildren, Woods, Nora, Sita and Red.

A private service will take place later this month.