CHICAGO – Despite the sputtering economy still dampening growth for the US restaurant industry, fast-casual restaurants have fared much better than the industry as a whole. Fast-casual restaurants, with $27 billion in annual sales, now represent 14 percent of all quick-service restaurant sales, compared to 5 percent just 10 years ago, according to Chicago-based Technomic.

This segment is expected to outpace the industry during the next five years, as fast-casual growth is forecast to compound 8 percent annually.

"The fast-casual segment is still evolving in ways that are strongly influencing all sectors of the restaurant industry," said Joe Pawlak, Technomic vice president. "While we categorize them among limited-service restaurants, they also compete strongly with full-service casual dining on several dimensions."

Technomic revealed that fast-casual restaurants share a fast-food service system and strong takeout orientation. Check averages tend to be less than $9.

At present, Panera Bread, at almost $3 billion in 2010 sales, leads the category in total sales. Six of the fastest-growing restaurant chains (on a percentage basis) in the entire industry are fast-casual concepts: Five Guys, Chipotle, Wing Stop, Qdoba, Pei Wei and Noodles & Company.

Technomic recently summarized the many aspects of fast casual's consumer appeal in terms of “10Fs” during its presentation to food-supplier members of its Foodservice Planning Program, which include food quality; fine ingredients; "fitter," wholesome food; fresh; first-rate décor; fair price, fast service; friendly employees; flexible offerings, and full-view preparation.