CHICAGO – Fast-casual chains benefited from consumers trading down from full-service restaurants to lower-priced but still higher-quality fresh food in 2009, according to a new study by foodservice industry consultant Technomic. The study found 2009 sales for the Top 100 fast-casual chains reached $17.5 billion, a 4.5% increase over 2008, and units grew by 4.3% to 14,777 locations.

Technomic stated fast-casual restaurants are part of the limited-service segment and they provide fast service and fresh, high-quality food in upscale settings. The company’s 2010 Top 100 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report provides rankings, analysis and profiles of the leading chains.

Findings include:

  • Panera Bread/Saint Louis Bread Company remained the leader of the fast-casual sub-segment overall, with 2009 sales of nearly $2.8 billion, a 7.1% increase over 2008. U.S. units increased by 4.3% to 1,304 stores. Chipotle held on to the number two spot, growing sales 13.9% to $1.5 billion, and U.S. units by 14.2% to 955 locations.
  • Bakery café/bagel was the most prevalent type of fast-casual chain, jumping from 17% to 21% of the Top 100 in 2009. Mexican and other sandwich (not hamburger) were the second- and third-most common menu categories. The other sandwich category took the biggest hit, dropping to 16% from 19% of fast-casual chains in 2008.
  • Bakery café/bagel remained the largest of all fast-casual clusters, generating $4.8 billion in U.S. sales in 2009. Mexican and chicken rounded out the top three, with total sales of $3.8 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively.
  • Fastest-growing menu categories among the Top 100 fast-casual chains were hamburger (up 16.7%), Asian/noodle (up 6.4%) and Mexican (up 6.3%). Most of this sales growth was a result of unit expansion throughout the year.
  • Fast-casual menus are differentiating themselves through the service of adult beverages.

"Growth within the fast-casual segment reveals positive consumer preferences for the service format, concept and menu positioning, and price points," said Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. "But competition is still fierce and dining-out dollars are still minimal. Fast-casual operators will have to continue being creative with value-oriented menu offerings, uniqueness in terms of flavor, preparation and quality, and new ways to bolster the bottom line."