Fast-casual restaurants, featuring upscale settings for fast service and fresh, high-quality and healthy food, continue to hold strong consumer appeal and demonstrate solid average unit volumes. According to Technomic’s recently-released Top 100 Fast Casual Chain Restaurant Report, the cluster experienced over 14 percent annual growth in 2006, compared to roughly 6 percent for the U.S. chain restaurant industry at large.

Panera continues to dominate in fast casual, with nearly $2 billion in 2006 sales, almost 20 percent annual growth over 2005. Other leaders include Panda Express, Chipotle, Boston Market and El Pollo Loco. Technomic estimates total sales for the fast-casual segment at $15 billion.

Fast casual occupies a strong niche position with consumers, providing a way for budget-conscious casual dining customers to “trade down,” while also giving traditional quick-service customers a chance to “trade up” to small, affordable luxuries. For just $2-$4 more, consumers can buy food that offers superior freshness, more taste and appeal, and perhaps better nutrition. Although fast casual has a strong takeout component (as much as 50 percent of sales), it also typically offers a comfortable, colorful “third place” environment that encourages lingering and socializing.

The success of fast-casual players hasn’t gone unnoticed by other chains. “Some casual dining operators have been successful in carving out a niche in the fast-casual market by creating brand extensions,” says Darren Tristano, Executive Vice President of Technomic Information Services. Examples include California Pizza Kitchen’s CPK ASAP and Don Pablos’ Pablo’s Fajita Grill.

Technomic’s new report thoroughly examines the top 100 fast-casual chains, with detailed coverage on fastest-growing chains and menu composition, analysis of 10 unique subsegments, daypart and adult beverage offerings, individual chain profiles, contact information and more.