The deep freeze of this month’s polar vortex — which no doubt hurt restaurant sales just as the new year was getting started — is not exactly a positive sign for the industry headed into 2014. No amount of gift card redemptions, usually a boon in January, will make up for consumers staying home in sub-zero or nearly zero temperatures across the majority of the country.

Still, this new year does have some positive momentum it won’t easily give up:

• Industrywide projections indicate 2013 aggregate sales topped 2012 levels by 3 percent and that 2014 sales will increase 3.6 percent.

• In the Nation’s Restaurant News 2014 Operator Survey, 56 percent of respondents said they believe their own sales in 2014 will be better than in 2013.

• At this month’s ICR XChange investor conference — the first restaurant and retail gathering of the year — the mood was optimistic. Nearly all presenting restaurant companies felt they could hit 2013 numbers and that 2014 was looking a bit brighter.

2014 should be a good year for us, economically,” Einstein Noah Restaurant Group Inc. chief executive Jeff O’Neill said in an interview at the ICR XChange in Orlando last week. “I’m more hopeful about the economy.”

On the flip side, the challenges restaurants face in 2014 are plentiful: the health care mandate, minimum wage increases and stagnate or unpredictable consumer spending. In this environment there is no doubt that innovative, forward-thinking restaurant brands led by inventive and focused leaders will succeed.

Each year, the editors at Nation’s Restaurant News research, discuss and create a list of key executives we’re eagerly watching as the year unfolds. The 2014 execs to watch face very short-term challenges and opportunities — whether the nationwide rollout of tabletop technology, the potential sale of a sizeable chain, or the navigation of growth pains with a $22 million investment.

Meet the leaders we believe are determined to succeed in the year ahead and have compelling stories to tell come 2015.

Who’s on your watch list? Leave your comments after the article, send me an e-mail, find me on Twitter, or reach us on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Coming soon: The Power List
As part of its annual NRN 50 special report, Nation’s Restaurant News has created a definitive list of the 50 most powerful people in the restaurant industry. Look for the list on and in the Jan. 27 issue of NRN.