Meet Tony Collins

A Be A Better Human Story

Meet Tony Collins – street performer, overcomer, and line cook at First Watch. With a decade of serving brunch under his belt at our restaurants in Dayton, Ohio, Tony beams with optimism as he continues to give back to his customers and community.

What’s your First Watch story? When, where, and how did the journey begin?

I’m an artist, musician, and Bohemian character. I lived in Vegas for most of my life, and indulged in every aspect of my life, and made some bad life choices early on. I got clean and sober in 2012, and the next year I was looking for a job that’d allow me to still have time for all the things that were changing my life in recovery.

tony collins team 1

I started with First Watch in June of 2013 at our Kettering location, about a year into my recovery. I had to take a bus to work for the first 5 years, and it was about a 3-hour commute, yet I didn’t miss a day of work in that entire time. That was because I had made a commitment to work as hard as I needed to and felt this was my last chance of getting it right, and First Watch gave me that opportunity and really supported me in that. The stigma is often tough to shake, and the people at First Watch – especially Steve Thullen, James Ralston, and Travis DePierre – are so supportive. On May 3 of this year, I celebrated 11 years of recovery.

You’ve been with First Watch for a decade. What have roles have you done in the restaurant?

I started off as in prep as a line cook and haven’t left for the last 10 years because I love it so much. But, because of the pandemic, I’ve really done every role in the restaurant as I tried to fit whatever was needed at the time.

What’s been your most memorable moment?

One of my favorite moments has to be participating in The Taste Festival in Dayton, where restaurants all over the city come together in a park for the day. There’s a lot of people and a lot of samples given out, and the energy of the whole event just makes us feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s what I love about First Watch – with the people here, you can tell there’s a passion for becoming part of the community and saying “yes” to help.

tony collins busking

Where did your love of music come from?

Well, I have a dad that was a musician and a mom that was an artist, but Dayton is also kind of an artsy place with a big music scene. One day, I walked into a Kroger grocery store and a “busker” – someone who performs LIVE on the street – was playing outside, and he was honestly pretty good. So, I brought my guitar the next day and joined in, and he was my official introduction into busking. For the last 7 years, whenever I have the time, I’m out busking with the group, usually at places with a lot of people.

What do you play when you street perform? Whatever comes to mind or…?

Guitar is my primary instrument, but I also play a lot of string instruments. Really, anything with a string on it, give me time and I can become OK at it…like the banjo, although it’s a little different. I have a running set list of 100 songs from 1970s to the early 2000s and I play everything from classic rock to country and blues. When I’m out and about, people always want to play “stump the musician,” and I’ve found you have to get good at building your repertoire. My advice: play the room and go with the crowd.

Is it true you’re writing an autobiography? If so, can we get a sneak peek about how it’s going? 

I started the book about a year into my recovery, around the time I joined First Watch. It’s an autobiography about the many times I attempted recovery and failed. Before this, I wrote a short story about a guy going on a similar journey to find his purpose in life called You Can’t Get There From Here – which is the title of my new book, too. I’m working with a publishing company, and I nearly rewrote the whole book with editor’s feedback. It was cathartic but still painful to relive all this. I’m at the end of the process – it’s being proofread now – and toward the end of the year, it’ll be out in print and digital formats.

tony collins book

What place does family have in your First Watch or recovery journeys?

I have four boys. They had seen me over a period of years try at recovery, and we were estranged at the beginning of my journey. My bus ride to work every day was my time to reflect. My social media became a blog of sorts to record my recovery journey. Soon enough, I found out my sons were catfishing me on Facebook to check in on me. I’m happy to say that over the last few years, slowly and carefully, a line of communication has been opened and our relationships are coming back organically.

We hear you have a big heart for giving back and helping your community through various avenues. Can you share some of those with us?

I went through a program in Dayton that has become the largest recovery program in this part of the United States – especially Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. I got in on the ground floor as one of their earliest participants. Now, I teach a life skills class twice a month to new recruits and speak at different functions to give people hope. You can’t outgive – we have to keep putting the positive out there.

What’s something you aspire to accomplish?

I’ve always wanted to open a food truck with a specific mission in mind. I see this truck going into places with few options for good, healthy meals and having a pay-it-forward mentality. If you can pay for your food, great, but if you want to pay a little more for the next person, you can do that too.

What advice would you share with anyone starting their journey with First Watch?

Show up and be willing to listen and learn. Take it one day at a time, like we do with everything else, but just show up – you’re not going to learn if you’re not there.

Favorite First Watch menu item? Any go-to menu hacks?

The Chickichanga, and I like to add our Pico de Gallo – “Pico it up,” as I call it – with extra avocado mash.

Want to join Tony in making good mornings at First Watch?