Fast Casual continues to evolve, making the concept a moving target for restaurateurs who are trying to succeed in the market that accounted for 15% of all limited service restaurant sales in 2013, according to the “Top 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report” from Technomic. A panel discussion presented Saturday by NRA’s Fast Casual Industry Council at the 95th annual NRA Show featured three executives from concepts that have managed to get it right and grow their business along with their brand reputation.

Although they work for operations ranging in size from six units to more than 750 units, the executives from WOW BAO, Rubio’s and Firehouse of America all agreed that a few key objectives hold the key to success for the future of fast casual. Regardless of size, location or concept, fast casual operators can’t ignore the growing demand for healthy options, the importance of technology and the role that company culture plays in building an engaging and lasting brand. (read more…)

Like most grocery stores, Sprouts Farmers Market offers discounts and promotions to its customers through several channels including e-mails and online coupons. But thanks to new data Sprouts is acquiring through a partnership with analytics provider Manthan Systems, the grocer is launching a new loyalty program based on customer analytics, which provides the company with specific data about its shoppers and their behaviors, Sprouts Chief Information and Marketing Officer Steve Black said during a Big !deas session at NRF‘s BIG Show in New York City on Monday. The new program will transition from one that is based on data about items to one that integrates both customer analytics and item data, giving Sprouts a better picture of who its best customers are and how to best engage with those who fall into its target market, he said.

“Every single experience of every single customer is important every single day,” which is why Sprouts hopes to improve the customer experience through the new program, Black said. (read more…)

iStock_000018376546XSmallPerennially popular Racines restaurant in Denver will close before midnight on New Year’s Eve, serving dinner and wrapping things up in plenty of time for patrons and workers to head downtown to see the annual midnight fireworks, owner Lee Goodfriend said.

Meanwhile, 2,000 miles east, TGI Friday’s in New York City’s Times Square will be offering a “Couples Champagne VIP Package” for $1,095, catering to revelers looking to get as close as possible to the ball drop, as the Wall Street Journal reported.

More than a million people are expected to crowd Times Square tonight, while there are only about 60,000 restaurant and bar seats, making the night a big celebration for eateries that can charge hundreds per head for meals including a $100 unlimited-pizza-and-beer party at Artichoke Basille’s and a $595 spaghetti dinner at Buca di Beppo, the Journal reports.

Eateries in the square aren’t the only Manhattan spots going all out on the eve, although those farther from the center of the action may have to try a little harder. (read more…)

Tis the season to party and companies are starting to do just that again, according to a new survey from executive search firm Battalia Winston, which found 96% of U.S. companies will throw holiday parties this year. That’s up from a post-recession low of 74% in 2011 and nearly on par with the all-time high of 97% hit in the boom years of 1996 and 1997.

Some 42% of respondents say they’re throwing a shindig to boost employee morale while 38% profess to partying in celebration of a good year for the company, a statistic that dovetails with the separate finding that 70% of companies surveyed said they’re on track to grow and hire next year.

Still, most companies aren’t socking in cases of champagne and tins of caviar for the occasion — 83% said they’ll stick to the same budget as last year and 10% plan to spend less on this year’s parties. (read more…)

This year’s PMA Fresh Summit in New Orleans spoke of change in the industry and innovation to propel a community of produce growers, shippers and marketers into the future. Sessions ran the gamut, from emerging technology and creating passion for fruits and vegetables through powerful marketing techniques to PMA President Bryan Silbermann’s State of the Industry session, which inspired and motivated the some-18,000 attendees at this year’s show.

Here’s a look at Silbermann’s general session, the innovative Innovation @ work display area, which showcased this year’s Impact Award winners, as well as a few shots of the bustling show floor, where colorful produce and floral arrangements spanned the Ernst N. Morial Convention Center and people of the produce industry exuded enthusiasm and passion for the world of produce.

(read more…)