Fast-casual chains strengthened their gains on the overall restaurant industry, with the top 150 fast-casual chains growing 8% to $21.5 billion in 2011, a faster rate than in 2010 (7%). In comparison, 2011 sales growth for the Top 500 U.S. chains was 4%.

Total fast-casual units among the Fast-Casual Top 150 increased 5% to 17,447. This group made up over three-quarters of the fast-casual industry’s sales, which total $27 billion annually.

These and other findings are featured in the Technomic Fast-Casual Top 150 Chain Restaurant Report. This year Technomic expanded its reporting from 100 to 150 fast-casual chains, ranking these chains by sales through monitoring and tracking the performance of over 400 fast-casual brands.

"Fast-casual operators continue to outshine every other segment within the U.S. restaurant industry," said Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President of Technomic. "Fast-casual restaurants fill the gap between quick service and casual dining. People want fast, fresh, quality meals at a fair price point. This segment seems to hit that sweet spot right now."

To help define key characteristics of the segment, Technomic refers to the Ten F's of fast-casual restaurants, which includes "fast" (speedy service) and "fair price" (moderate check averages). These restaurants usually have a strong takeout component, with takeout comprising as much as 50% of sales. Catering programs are usually highly developed and a substantial source of revenue.

The cluster has a strong consumer appeal and major emerging fast-casual chains demonstrate healthier average unit volumes compared to traditional quick service dining establishments.

The largest fast-casual segments and leaders within these segments are detailed below. Two of these segment leaders, Panera Bread and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, stood out with particularly strong 2011 sales growth, at 10% and 33%, respectively.