Randy GrierThe new year is underway, but those in the restaurant industry have mixed feelings about how it will unfold. Nation’s Restaurant News asked some operators what they expect in the months ahead, and here is what they said.

“I’m very optimistic. Steady improvement in the economy will drive increases in traffic and store count across the restaurant industry. But the big winners will be those that continue to invest and innovate.”

 — Randy Gier, chief executive of Pizza Inn and Pie Five Pizza Co., The Colony, Texas

“I keep reading stuff that everything’s more robust in the economy, but I don’t buy it all. Really, it hasn’t been a bad year for us, because we’ve been flat to marginally up, and the holiday season was on the lower end of expectations. But personally, it just seems very cautious and certainly not freewheeling in the restaurants.

Tom Jednorowicz“The government coming at you with health care might be fine, if we could just figure out what it’s going to cost, and with people saying everyone should make $15 an hour — you hear all this stuff and you have to wait and see. You never know who’s going to win these battles.”

— Tom Jednorowicz, founder and chief executive, Meatheads Burgers & Fries, Chicago

Mark Snyder“We look at consumer confidence and buying power, and we don’t feel going into 2014 that the consumer is going to be a lot more confident, based on what’s going on with the government, unemployment and housing. So from a confidence standpoint, we’re leery of where it’s going to be next year in terms of traffic.”

— Mark Snyder, chief operating officer, Hurricane Grill & Wings, West Palm Beach, Fla.

“2014 is about getting back to basics. We’ve grown so much and gone to a new market, and we’ve lost a little off our blocking and tackling, so we’ll focus on that. In general, 2014 will be about the boring stuff.”

— Matt Matros, founder and chief executive, Protein Bar, Chicago

Mark Hinchliffe,“We're not very interested in the business environment, in the sense that it doesn't effect our vision of transforming great American cities through hospitality. External environments are in constant flux. Our focus is on cultivating our own internal environment — who we choose to be in the world. It's looking bright for 2014.”

— Mark Hinchliffe, project director and creative strategist for Smith, which owns and operates Brickwall Tavern, The Annex, Porta, Goldie's and Pascal & Sabine, all in Asbury Park, N.J., and The Monk Room in Newark, N.J.

Eric Ersher“As customers continue using social media, we'll see strong brands finding meaningful ways to connect with customers across all touch points.   

“We expect more growth and competition in the fast-casual segment as consumers continue to appreciate and migrate toward quality, healthful and affordable alternatives to fast food and traditional casual dining. With nearly 50 percent of all food expenditures taking place in restaurants, we expect to see more growth — and more competition — in our fast-casual segment.

“Quality brand leaders will focus on and leverage their brand's story, culture and communities to create an authentic connection with their customers.

— Eric Ersher, founder and managing partner of Zoup! Fresh Soup Company, Southfield, Mich.

Andrew Gruel“I think the business environment in 2014 is going to be the strongest we have seen in years. In terms of restaurants, real estate is still relatively inexpensive. The poor economy over the last four to five years has also weeded out a lot of the inexperienced players and made their spaces and assets, including lease reassignments, easy to snatch and grab. This will in turn allow for quicker openings, more jobs available for the community and potentially lower, or stable, pricing for the consumer — all in all, a formula for a stronger economy.”

— Andrew Gruel, co-founder and corporate chef, Slapfish Restaurant Group LLC, Huntington Beach, Calif.