The lackluster economy may have dampened growth for the restaurant industry at large, but fast casual restaurants continue to stand out as one notable exception. With $27 billion in annual sales, food industry consultants Technomic point out that fast casual restaurants now represent 14 percent of all quick-service restaurant sales, compared to 5 percent just ten years ago. They are expected to continue outpacing the industry over the next five years, when fast casual growth is forecasted to compound 8 percent annually.

Fast casual restaurants share a fast-food service system and strong takeout orientation. Check averages tend to be under $9. Technomic breaks the segment down further into categories that include bakery cafes, Mexican/Southwest, specialty, sandwich, chicken, and burger concepts.

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

"Full- and quick-service operators continue to adapt and reposition their concepts toward areas in which fast casual has been effective with consumers," explained co-presenter Darren Tristano, Technomic EVP. "This shift will likely blur the definition of fast casual in the eyes of consumers and increase competition in the segment."

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

In its presentation to food supplier members of its Foodservice Planning Program, Technomic summarized the many aspects of fast casual's consumer appeal in terms of 10Fs, which include: 

Food quality

Fine ingredients

"Fitter," wholesome food


First-rate decor

Fair price

Fast service

Friendly employees

Flexible offerings

Full-view preparation

Attendees received insights on how consumers rank fast-casual restaurants on these and other dimensions, the competitive impact this is having on other segments of the restaurant industry, and recommended action steps for foodservice suppliers.