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 nrn.com and in the Jan. 27 issue of NRN.

Lenny CommaLeonard "Lenny" Comma

Chairman and chief executive, Jack in the Box Inc.

On the job as chief executive for less than 30 days, Leonard Comma already has confirmed guidance for 2013, said the Jack in the Box chain can shave 60 seconds off drive thru speed of service to drive throughput and sales, and confirmed Qdoba as a “primary growth opportunity.”  

Taking the top spot following the retirement of long-time chief executive Linda Lang, who had been with Jack in the Box Inc. for more than 20 years, Comma was promoted from president and chief operating officer and has been with the company since 2001. Even prior to taking the helm, Comma led recent initiatives including restaurant reimaging, refranchising efforts and the debut of the Jack in the Box late-night Munchie Menu.

The change from Lang to Comma has been “the smoothest transition I’ve ever been a part of,” he said at the ICR XChange conference earlier this month.

As 2014 unfolds, Comma will be watched for his stewardship of the San Diego-based company that operates or franchises more than 2,500 restaurants under the Jack in the Box brand and nearly 600 locations under the Qdoba brand.

Jack in the Box names Comma CEO
Sizing up restaurant market-share competition in 2014

SmashburgerScott Crane

Chief executive, Smashburger

In November news broke that Smashburger’s then chief executive David Prokupek stepped down and that company president Scott Crane would take the top post. While Crane has been with the better-burger brand for six years, Prokupek was the face of the growth chain since its founding in 2007.

Crane will be at the helm at a critical time for Smashburger — a transitional period where growth capital will come into play to get the 230-unit chain to the next level. He confirmed this week that Smashburger, owned by Consumer Capital Partners, is exploring strategic options, including a possible sale or initial public offering, as it continues its quest to become a national fast-casual player. A strategic review by North Point Advisors LLC and Bank of America Merrill Lynch is about “putting options on the table,” and looking at the “when and if and how,” Crane told NRN.

Prior to Smashburger, Crane was executive vice president of Fugate Enterprises, a Wichita, Kan.-based operator of franchised brands, including Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Blockbuster Video stores.

Smashburger considers IPO, possible sale
Smashburger CEO steps down, president takes the reins

Nicolas Jammet

Co-chief executive, Sweetgreen

The fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen announced in December that it had received a $22 million investment from Revolution Growth, a venture capital firm founded by Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL.

Nicolas Jammet, one of three co-founders and co-chief executives of Sweetgreen along with Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru, said this major investment from Revolution Growth was the company’s first influx of institutional capital and will help fund growth.

The 22-unit, farm-to-table brand has been getting a lot of attention as restaurants offering more health-focused fare and using sustainable and environmental practices continue to gain consumer traction.  

Founded in Washington in 2007, Sweetgreen is a concept designed to offer “healthful, quick, affordable food that is either locally sourced or transparent” about where ingredients come from, Jammet has told NRN.

Sweetgreen receives $22M investment from AOL co-founder
Taking local sourcing to a new level

PotbellyAylwin Lewis

Chairman, chief executive and president, Potbelly Corp.

As the head of one of the hottest stocks in the restaurant industry — following a blockbuster $150 million initial public offering in 2013 — all eyes will be on Alylwin Lewis.

Potbelly Corp., the operator or franchisor of nearly 300 sandwich restaurants, expects to continue its growth in 2014 and beyond after opening about 35 restaurants in 2013. Franchising, which is currently responsible for less than 10 units, will become a larger part of its growth story.

Lewis has served as chief executive, president and director at Potbelly since June 2008, steering it through key years of growth, capital funding needs and the eventual IPO. Prior to that role he served as chief executive and president of Sears Holdings Corp. Lewis currently serves on the board of directors of the Walt Disney Company and Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc.

Wall Street bullish on Potbelly
Potbelly outlines growth plans

DardenClarence Otis

Chairman and chief executive, Darden Restaurants Inc.

Darden Restaurants, one of the largest full-service restaurant companies in the industry, is at a crossroad. Looking to spin off or sell its 705-unit Red Lobster chain — with activist investors on the attack no less — and to navigate through late 2013 job cuts and years of same-store sales declines at its largest chains, Darden is on everyone’s watch list for 2014. Clarence Otis, the company’s head since 2004, will need to lead through this transition.

Outside of corporate moves, growth at the company’s smaller and sales-positive brands Seasons 52 and Yard House are on the agenda, as well as menu moves at Olive Garden. The 832-unit chain added a lighter-fare menu addition as well as an Italian-inspired burger to the menu last year, looking to increase guest traffic and compete more aggressively at lunch. 

Darden to spin off or sell Red Lobster
Olive Garden adds a burger

BojanglesClifton Rutledge

Chief executive, Bojangles’ Restaurants Inc.

As of today’s dateline, Clifton Rutledge, the former chief operating officer at Whataburger, assumed the role of chief executive at Bojangles’ Restaurants Inc., which operates or franchises 574 Bojangles’ Famous Chicken & Biscuits restaurants in 10 states.

Bojangles’, which is owned by private-equity fund Advent International, said Rutledge would lead the quick-service chicken chain’s ongoing expansion in its core markets in the Southeast and continue to drive same-store sales growth.

Chicken brands have shown a rapid pace of growth in the past two years, especially when compared to other limited-service segments. In the latest NRN Top 100 report, covering the December 2012-ended year, Bojangles was the second-fastest growth chain in the chicken segment, behind Wingstop and ahead of Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s and Popeyes. 

Prior to joining Bojangles’, Rutledge served as Whataburger’s chief operating officer since 2006. Before holding that role, he worked in both company and franchise operations for TCBY and KFC.

Bojangles’ names Clifton Rutledge CEO
Bojangles’ rolls out new ad campaign

CheckersEnrique "Rick" Silva

President and chief executive, Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc.

Speculation continues to brew that Checkers Drive-In Restaurants Inc. is looking to hold an initial public offering of stock, which would add it to the list of successful equity plays for restaurants. Beyond Wall Street, Checkers and its chief executive Enrique Silva have been building the brand.  

Silva appeared on the “Undercover Boss” television show in 2012, a move he said boosted sales and helped employee morale. Learnings from the reality show led to the development of unit-level staff incentive programs and a general managers’ council.

The parent to the 800-unit chain has also recently debuted a new prototype and has told NRN it has booked years of positive same-store sales at a time when other quick-service chains — like segment leader McDonald’s — have been stagnant.  

UPDATE, Jan. 26: Late Friday, reports surfaced that Checkers' private-equity owner Wellspring Capital Management has agreed to sell the chain to Sentinel Capital Partners. Stay at NRN for more when the news and information has been confirmed. 

Report: Checkers looking to go public
Checkers sees business benefits of ‘Undercover Boss’ appearance

Bloomin BrandsElizabeth "Liz" Smith

Chairman and chief executive, Bloomin’ Brands Inc.

Much is expected of Outback Steakhouse parent company Bloomin’ Brands Inc., which has been predicted to be a top stock performer for 2014 by Jeffrey Bernstein, director and senior research analyst for Barclays, and Andy Barish, managing director and senior equity research analyst for Jefferies.

The operator and franchisor of nearly 1,500 restaurants has been outperforming segment peers in sales after Elizabeth Smith orchestrated a multi-year turnaround since taking the helm in 2009.

On the cost side, the company has realized $42 million of a $50 million productivity savings plan for 2013.  Labor scheduling the company rolled out last April drove costs down nearly 1 percent to 28 percent of sales, according to John Ivankoe, securities analyst at J.P. Morgan.

In addition to Outback Steakhouse, Bloomin’ Brands owns Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Roy’s.

Bloomin’ Brands a stock to watch
Casual dining battles for lunch

DineEquityJulia Stewart

Chairman and chief executive, DineEquity Inc.

Operating the largest casual-dining and family-dining chains — both of which have struggled at times with negative sales — puts DineEquity in a party of one. The company’s chains together boast about 3,600 units, and while legacy brands, they are making some bold moves into new phases of technology and menu development.

Applebee’s, for example, is rolling out the use of touch-screen tablets to its 1,865 U.S. restaurants next year. The yearlong rollout is scheduled to begin in March and will include about 100,000 tabletop tablets.

At IHOP, a menu redesign led to the chain’s largest same-store sales increase in more than five years as guests chose to order more appetizers and higher-priced dishes. For the Sept. 30-ended third quarter, same-store sales for the once-struggling family-dining chain rose 3.6 percent, the largest increase since the 3.7-percent climb recorded during the first quarter of 2008.

Applebee’s to roll out tablets at all U.S. restaurants
IHOP menu redesign leads to higher average check

Pizzeria LocaleBobby Stuckey

Co-founder and owner, Pizzeria Locale

Pizzeria Locale first opened in 2011 in Boulder, Colo., as a full-service Neapolitan-style restaurant created by Bobby Stuckey, a master sommelier, and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, executive chef. While a favorite in the city, Pizzeria Locale was put on the national map seemingly overnight when Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. revealed in December an investment in the brand. In the fight to find a winner in fast-casual pizza, a heavyweight just entered the ring.
 
“Bobby and Lachlan are extraordinary restaurateurs who truly understand what it takes to provide an exceptional dining experience,” Chipotle founder and co-chief executive Steve Ells said in a statement. “I have known them for years, and I thought their pizzeria in Boulder presented the perfect opportunity to collaborate.”
 
Terms of the partnership were not disclosed. Stuckey told NRN that Chipotle’s stake in the concept will be determined as the brand grows. In addition, Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson have maintained full ownership of the original Pizzeria Locale and its sister full-service restaurant, Frasca Food and Wine.
 
Chipotle joins fast-casual pizza race
Fast-casual pizza players raising dough