For the third consecutive year, The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association is recognizing four foodservice chain operators, including Smashburger, Panera and Noodles & Company, through the COEX Innovation Awards. The winners will receive their awards during IFMA's Chain Operators EXchange (COEX), March 3-6 at The Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas.

COEX Innovation Awards recognize regional and national chain companies that are shaping the industry through innovation in culinary, operations, marketing and service. National and regional chains were nominated and voted on by IFMA members, which include the world's most prestigious foodservice manufacturers.

"The annual COEX Innovation Awards allow us to honor pioneering chain operators that make foodservice the exciting industry it is today," said Larry Oberkfell, president & CEO, IFMA. "This year we received more nominations than ever before, which speak volumes about the inventive work being done by the chain operator community."

The winners and why they were chosen, according to the IMFA, include:

Marketing/Service, Regional Chain: Smashburger
Smashburger is a fast casual restaurant designed to be every city's favorite place for burgers. No two Smashburger menus are alike, as they create special burgers using local ingredients for each market they serve. In 2012, they took this strategy to a new level with locally sourced craft beers. Smashburger collaborated with small, resident brewers to create unique burger and beer pairings specific to individual markets.

Culinary/Operations, National Chain: Panera Bread
Panera is a driving force in the quick casual segment. A forerunner in the bakery café space, the company is focused on improving customer experience and identifying unique culinary experiences to bring to their consumer base. In addition, Panera is a leader in the "pay what you can" restaurant model, which raises the level of awareness about food insecurity in the U.S. and serves as a catalyst for change in communities.

Culinary/Operations, Regional Chain: Noodles & Company
Noodles & Company has a broad-based pasta menu with a variety of cuisines available in a multitude of formats. The addition of new appetizers, sandwiches and alternative proteins expand their already robust menu offerings, allowing for more flavors, textures and day part choices. The success of Noodles & Company's culinary innovations is evident in their growth. With nearly 330 units and climbing, they are eclipsing store growth of 10 percent even in difficult economic times.

Marketing/Service, National Chain: Wendy's International
Wendy's is in the midst of a comprehensive transformation to contemporize the brand and improve the customer experience. The company is connecting with consumers in new and innovative ways, with bold restaurant designs, fresh product innovation, more engaging advertising and digital media advancements, including a mobile app that allows customers to personalize meals based on the amount of calories they choose. The brand transformation will soon extend to the introduction of a new, contemporary logo.

The 2013 COEX Innovation Awards are sponsored by Sargento Foods Inc. and Surlean Foods.

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