According to Technomic's Top 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report, fast casual makes up just 14% of the total $223 billion limited-service restaurant segment, but its sales continue to outpace other operators. Fast-casual sales increased 13% in 2012, and the largest chains—those which each made more than $325 million last year—did even better, growing by 16%. Fast-casual restaurants continue to outperform both quick-service and full-service establishments and post strong gains even while the rest of the industry is having a more difficult time.

Looking forward, the trend is expected to continue. Whereas the compound annual growth rate for all limited-service restaurants is 4.5% (2012 through 2017), fast-casual operators are expected to grow 10%, on average, over the same period.

"Fast casual has become a $31-billion segment since Chipotle began reinventing fast food 20 years ago," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic. "Consumers today want quality offerings made quickly. Segments like burger, sandwich and Mexican have done a great job delivering on quality, fresh, gourmet, and made-on-demand offerings. There are still areas of growth in the fast-casual segment for operators to adopt these ingredients for success and become viable in the fast-casual landscape."

Bakery cafés continued to lead all menu categories among the Top 150 fast-casual chains, with US systemwide sales of $6.1 billion, up more than 10 percent over 2011. The Mexican and sandwich categories were second and third largest, with US systemwide sales of $5.7 and $4.4 billion, respectively. The categories that saw the fastest sales growth were sandwich (up 17%) and Asian/noodle (up 16%). The burger and sandwich clusters experienced the highest unit growth, growing outlets by 14% and 13%, respectively. Top players within fast-casual clusters include:

Bakery café led by Panera Bread with sales of $3.7 billion. Mexican led by Chipotle Mexican Grill with sales of $2.7 billion. Chicken led by Zaxby's with sales of $979 million. Asian/Noodle led by Panda Express with sales of $1.8 billion. Better Burger led by Five Guys Burgers and Fries with sales of $1.1 billion. Sandwich led by Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop with sales of $1.3 billion. Pizza led by Donatos Pizza with estimated sales of $157 million.

The Technomic Top 150 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report provides Technomic's exclusive rankings, analysis and profiles of the leading fast-casual chain restaurants, helping readers understand emerging trends and players in one of today's fastest growing segments.