Priding itself on freshness and worker-friendliness, the fast-growing First Watch chain of breakfast/brunch/lunch restaurants opened in October in the Village Centre at Oak Valley Dr. and Ann Arbor–Saline Rd.

It occupies the front corner of the small, set-back shopping center anchored by Outback Steakhouse. Ample windows along the southern and eastern entrances make for generous sunrise views. The space had been home to Performance Bicycle for most of the previous decade.

It’s First Watch’s tenth Michigan location—one in Novi opened the previous week—and one of some 445 nationally. Most, like the Ann Arbor store, are corporate-owned rather than franchised. The Bradenton, Fla.–based company went public last year. 

The varied menu ranges from the healthy to the hefty—a super-food kale salad, a bacon-and-avocado omelet, lemon-ricotta pancakes. It’s backed by a focus on freshness: no heat lamps or microwave ovens to be found. 

To speed service, coffee comes in thermal carafes, diners can join the line virtually before arrival, and there are twin check-out registers. The neutral-hued dining room holds thirty-one wooden tables and a seven-seat rail at the juice/cocktail bar. Patio seating will accommodate dozens more diners in season. 

General manager Bradley DeLoof, who lives near Saline, started with the company as a server less than two years ago, ended up managing the Canton location, and now has opened a new restaurant. 

DeLoof says his five managers and his boss all began as First Watch servers, too. “I’ve worked a lot of restaurants throughout my life, and we create opportunities like I’ve never seen before. That’s something everyone’s looking for.” 

His staff count stood at twenty-eight one week after opening, a hiring feat he credits to both corporate resources and appealing hours, benefits, culture, and pay. Single shifts end every mid-afternoon, cooks start at $20 per hour, and tips are good thanks to high volume, effective service, and higher prices than most local breakfast spots. 

“Although everyone feels like they’re struggling to hire, the real issue is that places are struggling to keep their staff and to draw them in,” DeLoof opines. “You can get people to show up for an interview. But can you get them to stay? 

“You know, a lot of people are in jobs that they don’t feel appreciated or noticed.”

“He’s not lying about that,” confirms server Paisley Brenen of Ypsilanti, a personable and experienced new hire. “I think it was the first day, I was feeling sick, and everybody was calling me like, ‘We just want to make sure that you were OK first.’ They were asking if I was going to be able to come in the next day. They’re like, ‘If not, okay, just get your rest.’ They really do care. They’re nice. I really love it.”

First Watch, 3059 Oak Valley Dr. (Village Centre). (734) 822-1959. Daily 7 a.m.–2:30 p.m.