A seasoned executive leader with a track record of success, Chris has more than 25 years of experience guiding some of the most well-known brands in the restaurant and entertainment industries.
In June of 2018, Chris was named Chief Executive Officer of First Watch Restaurants, Inc. after serving as President since December of 2015 and Chief Marketing Officer from 2006 to 2015. Prior to joining First Watch, Chris led strategic branding and marketing for renowned national and international brands such as Cracker Barrel and Hard Rock Café International. He was honored on Nation's Restaurant News' Power List in 2017 and recognized as one of the most admired C-Suite executives by FSR Magazine in 2021.
Chris earned a B.A. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and is an active alumnus who currently serves on the University of Central Florida Foundation Board of Directors. He was inducted into the university's Nicholson School of Communication and Media Hall of Fame in 2016.
Mel Hope joined the First Watch team in 2018, bringing decades of experience leading complex public organizations like Popeyes’ Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. as well as entrepreneurial start-ups. He leads the company’s finance department, including long-term strategic financial planning, transactional negotiations, reporting, P&L budgeting and more. Prior to joining First Watch, Mel was most recently a partner in Genesis Real Estate Advisers LLC, serving as the company’s Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer. Long before he began working in finance, Mel’s first restaurant experience was at 8 years old, serving iced tea to guests at his grandfather’s restaurant. He graduated from Belhaven University with a BBA in Accounting and is a CPA.
With more than 20 years of experience in Real Estate and Development, Eric Hartman leads Development for the First Watch brand, which includes Strategic Planning, Site Selection, Real Estate, Design, Construction, Facilities and Asset Management. Eric previously served as Founder and President of a commercial, residential and mixed-use development organization, SEVA Development, where he remains on the board of directors. Before that, for more than 10 years, Eric led many development-related functions for Bloomin’ Brands, the parent company of Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s and Bonefish Grill. His roles with Bloomin’ Brands included Vice President of Development Strategy and then Group Vice President of Real Estate and Development, where he led the team responsible for site selection, letters of intent, lease negotiations and development management for new growth and relocations domestically. Eric is a registered Professional Engineer and graduated with Honors from the University of South Florida, where he earned a degree in Civil Engineering. Eric played on the Men’s Tennis Team during his time at USF, where he was named to the all-conference team his sophomore year.
Dan Jones joined the First Watch team as Chief Operations Officer in October 2021. Prior to First Watch, Jones served as Chief Operating Officer of CAVA since 2016, where he was responsible for CAVA and Zoës Kitchen brand operations, including overseeing facilities and catering. Jones also previously served in roles of increasing responsibility over his 14 years at Starbucks, which ultimately culminated in his appointment to Director of Operations for New York City, where he was responsible for the operations of approximately 90 stores. Jones was named Chief Operating Officer of the Year by the Washington Business Journal in 2018.
Calum Middleton joined First Watch Restaurants in 2015 and has held multiple positions within our finance team before being promoted to Chief Strategy Officer in 2021. Calum oversees strategic initiatives, company-wide analytics, financial planning & analysis, treasury and payroll. He joined as an experienced financial professional with a deep knowledge of analytical skills and extensive international experience. Before joining the team, he served as the Senior Vice President of Financial Planning and Analysis at Star2Star Communications, LLC. Calum, originally from Scotland, earned a bachelor’s degree in accountancy and a PhD in Finance from the University of Dundee where he also taught accounting and finance courses.
As the Chief People Officer for First Watch, Laura Sorensen oversees all aspects of the employee experience, including staffing and people development, employee relations, diversity of strategic planning. She joined the First Watch team in 2016 with two decades of experience working in Human Resources for prominent brands. Most recently, she worked as a member of the executive team as the senior Vice President of Human Resources for Darden’s LongHorn Steakhouse, where she oversaw all Human Resources priorities and initiatives for nearly 500 restaurants and 30,000 employees. Before working with Darden, Laura served as the Director of Human Resources at Chico’s and as the strategic business partner to White House / Black Market brand president and executive team for all brand business functions. She also served on the Board of Directors for the Orlando chapter of the Adult Literacy League. Laura earned a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing and an MBA with specialization in Human Resources management from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.
Jay Wolszczak has served as First Watch Restaurant Group’s General Counsel and Secretary since December 2019. He has also served as chief legal officer, general counsel and secretary of First Watch Restaurants, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Company, since May 2018. Jay previously served as General Counsel and Senior Vice President of Business Affairs for Hard Rock International, Inc. in Orlando. Prior to his tenure at Hard Rock, he was an associate with Akerman Senterfitt and Holland & Knight. Jay graduated with honors from the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law in Gainesville and was a member of the Florida Law Review.
Rob Conti joined the team at First Watch Restaurants in 2019, with over 25 years of experience leading technology solutions and services for prominent hospitality brands. Rob is responsible for our IT strategy, planning and delivery to the business. Prior to First Watch, Rob spent 18 years at Hard Rock International where he was Vice President of Technology, responsible for global IT infrastructure and operations, including security and compliance efforts across 200 plus businesses in 74 countries. Rob also spent 10 plus years with The Walt Disney Company in restaurant operations. In 2021, Rob was named as one of the most influential restaurant executives according to Nation’s Restaurant News.
Matt Eisenacher joined First Watch in 2019 as the Senior Vice President of Brand Strategy and Innovation. Previously, Matt was the Chief Concept Officer for Piada Italian Street Food based in Columbus, Ohio where he was responsible for the branding, marketing, IT and business development efforts as the company grew nationwide. Prior to Piada, Matt spent over 12 years in the Consumer-Packaged Goods industry across a variety of food & nutrition brands working for Nestle USA, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and Abbott Nutrition. In 2022, he was named one of FSR Magazine’s 13 Most Influential Marketing Leaders in the Restaurant Industry. Matt received a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and Management from Ohio University and his MBA, specializing in Marketing, from The Ohio State University.
Rania Khouri joined First Watch in April 2019 with a wealth of knowledge in accounting, financial reporting and internal controls. Rania worked for several global companies across multiple industries and lived in London, United Kingdom for twelve years. Before starting with First Watch, Rania was the Head of External Reporting for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) where she was responsible for the preparation and filing of the public quarterly and annual reports. Prior to FCA, Rania was the Senior Director of Research and Policy at Hilton Worldwide and had worked at both PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and Ernst and Young, LLP. At First Watch, Rania leads the Accounting and Financial Reporting team and business partners with various functions including Finance, Supply Chain, IT and Development. Rania is a C.P.A. and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Central Florida.
After graduating at the top of his class from Johnson & Wales in 2005, Shane Schaibly worked in fine dining for brands like The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach and Tampa’s Café Ponte. He joined Front Burner Brands concept The Melting Pot in 2007, where he helped the company set the Guinness World Record for World’s Largest Cheese Fondue Set while working as manager of culinary development before serving as the restaurant’s director of food and beverage and ultimately corporate chef for the Front Burner Brands restaurant group, where he developed menu items and opened restaurants around the world.
Since joining First Watch, he has shifted his focus from fine dining to breakfast, brunch and lunch. During his tenure with First Watch, Shane has strategically overhauled the brand’s culinary approach, beginning with the rollout of an industry-leading Fresh Juice platform. Using the juice program as a foundation, he curated a new Crafted Cocktail platform, strategically introducing alcohol to more than 300 First Watch restaurants for the first time in the company’s over 35-year history. Shane also spearheaded the brand’s seasonal menu program, introducing five seasonal menus throughout each year utilizing on-trend, seasonal ingredients and recipes that continue to elevate the brunch experience and differentiate First Watch from industry competitors.
In 2021, Shane was honored on Nation’s Restaurant News’ Chef Power List and, in 2022, his limited-time-offer creation, the Short Rib Omelet, was recognized with a MenuMasters Award by Nation's Restaurant News.
Lilah Taha-Rippett is the Senior Vice President of Supply Chain. She joined in 2017 and with the responsibility to build a supply chain department that would support the organization’s growth. She brings decades of restaurant industry experience to the role, including executive leadership positions at both large-scale public and private domestic and international multi-unit concepts. Prior to joining First Watch, Lilah led global supply chain teams, and served as a strategic partner with restaurant companies including Uno Restaurants, LLC and Bloomin Brands, Inc. Lilah and her husband, Brian are involved with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and focus much of their time supporting the Society’s advocacy and research efforts.