CHICAGO – Fast-casual chains seem ideally positioned for the prevailing economic and social climate, seeing that restaurant operators continue to face challenges caused by the recession and slow pace of the ensuing recovery, with cost pressures and declines in consumer dining making growth difficult to sustain.

In 2010, the category continued to outpace the restaurant industry as a whole, with the Top 100 fast-casual chains growing 6 percent to nearly $18.9 billion, a faster rate than in 2009. Total units grew 3.9 percent to 15,827, which is slightly slower than the prior year, but still faster than any other dining segment.

Chicago-based Technomic said its 2011 Top 100 Fast-Casual Chain restaurant Report provides rankings, analysis and profiles of the leading chains, and helps chain operators and foodservice suppliers understand emerging trends and players in today's fastest growing segment.

Findings include:

  • The Mexican menu category overtook bakery cafe/bagel restaurants as the most prevalent type of fast-casual restaurant in the Top 100 in 2010. Bakery cafes continued to lead all menu categories in terms of total US system wide sales in 2010, driven primarily by its largest player, Panera Bread.

  • The fastest growing menu categories for the Top 100 fast-casual chains were “better burger” (up 16.1 percent), Asian/noodle (up 10.1 percent) and Mexican (up 9 percent).

  • Fast-casual menus are differentiating themselves through adult beverages – beer, wine or spirits are now sold in nearly 40 percent of fast-casual chains.

  • Panera Bread remained the sales leader among all fast-casual chains, with 2010 sales nearly more than $2.9 billion, a 4.3 percent increase from 2009. Its US units increased 5.5 percent to 1,376.

  • Chipotle Mexican Grill retained its number two spot, growing sales 20.7 percent to $1.8 billion, and units 13.5 percent to 1,084 locations.

"This category has essentially blown through the recession without skipping a beat," said Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. "The real pressures are now coming from other types of concepts that have taken note and are positioning themselves alongside their fast-casual counterparts. Quick-service restaurants are revamping their offerings and decor in an attempt to provide value beyond low prices and take back market share."

Increased competition is becoming a concern, as new concepts continue to establish themselves and compete in the fast-casual marketplace, Tristano adds.