CHICAGO – In 2010, the 500-largest US restaurant chains posted a 1.8% annual sales increase. US systemwide sales for the Top 500 increased to an estimated $234 billion in 2010, up more than $4 billion over 2009, according to Technomic Inc.’s annual reporting on the top US restaurant chains.

"The industry has a lot of ground to recover and still faces many challenges,´ said Ron Paul, president of Technomic. “But our latest findings on 2010 chain performance are certainly encouraging."

Limited-service pizza, donut and coffee and other beverage categories experienced growth with Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and Pizza Hut posting 2010 estimated sales growth of 8.7, 6.1 and 7.8%, respectively. McDonald’s, grew 4.4% with sales of $32.4 billion. Subway still dominated the growing other sandwich segment with 6% sales growth and total sales of $10.6 billion, which is considerably better than the 1.8% growth posted by the other sandwich chains collectively. Subway remains the second-largest restaurant chain in the US followed by Starbucks, Burger King and Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers.

Limited service as a whole grew at a rate of 2.5%. Growing at 9.3%, Asian was another limited-service sub-segment with sales growth well above their segment average. Panda Express, a California-based chain, grew 12.8% with sales of $1.4 billion.

Fast-casual chains continued to drive growth. The Mexican category was again led by Chipotle Mexican Grill, posting US systemwide sales growth of 20.7%. Meanwhile, Five Guys Burgers and Fries was a standout in the hamburger segment with estimated sales growth of 37.8%.

One major story within the Top 500 full-service restaurants category was in the steak category, which ascended from a 6.4% decline in 2009 to a sales gain of 2.2% in 2010. Although steak chains continued to be affected by slow unit expansion, more closings and a decline in customer traffic and check averages, they were not alone in surpassing average full-service sales performance.

The top 10 fastest-growing chains’ sales accounted for $7.8 billion, an 18% increase over 2009. Unit counts increased 14%.

Nominal sales increases were posted at more than 50% of the Top 500 restaurant chains; just 231 of these chains posted sales declines in 2010 compared to 283 in 2009. These widely-mixed results demonstrate the overall competitiveness of the industry and the need for suppliers and operators to carefully identify and focus on the winners, Technomic said.

The Top 500 restaurant chains’ international performance managed to outperform domestic sales growth in 2010. International sales, which increased 3.1%, outpaced US sales, which increased 1.8%. International unit growth also increased 3.7% versus 0.5% for US units.