The 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains registered a decline in sales, posting 0.8 percent annual sales decline in 2009. According to data released today by Technomic Inc., in its annual reporting on the top U.S. restaurant chains, the leading foodservice consultancy found that U.S. system-wide sales for the Top 500 declined to an estimated $230.0 billion in 2009, down almost $2 billion over 2008.

“As the U.S. economy remained in a recession, restaurant operators continued to face a host of challenges, including cost pressures followed by declines in consumer dining demand,” says Ron Paul, president of Technomic. “The data in this report clearly supports what we’ve been hearing in our consumer research surveys over the past year. Sales among the Top 500 restaurant chains contracted 0.8 percent in 2009, versus 3.4 percent growth in 2008. Many chains scaled back their U.S. unit expansion efforts and shuttered underperforming stores, growing units by just 0.3 percent compared with 1.8 percent a year ago.”

Growth came from the limited-service Mexican, bakery café, and donut categories with Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Dunkin’ Donuts posting 2009 sales growth of 13.9 percent and an estimated 7.1 and 3.7 percent, respectively. McDonald’s, the largest U.S. restaurant chain, grew 2.9 percent with sales estimated at $30.9 billion. Subway continued to dominate the growing Other Sandwich segment with 4.2 percent sales growth and total sales of $10 billion, which is considerably better than the 0.8 percent growth posted by the Other Sandwich chains collectively. Subway continues as the second-largest restaurant chain in the U.S., followed by Burger King, Wendy’s, and Starbucks.

Limited-service chains within the Technomic Top 500 accounted for 85 percent of all U.S. “fast food” restaurant sales. As a whole, this group grew at a rate of 0.1 percent. Asian, which grew at 5.9 percent, was another limited-service subsegment with sales growth well above their segment average. Within this group, Panda Express, a California-based chain, grew 8.8 percent with sales of $1.2 billion.

Growth continued to be driven by fast-casual chains. The Mexican category was led once again by Chipotle Mexican Grill and Qdoba Mexican Grill, posting U.S. system-wide sales growth of 13.9 and an estimated 6.5 percent, respectively. Standouts in the hamburger segment included Five Guys Burgers and Fries and The Counter with estimated sales growth of 50.2 and 67.3 percent, respectively.

Full-service chains within the Technomic Top 500 accounted for roughly 40 percent of all U.S. restaurant sales within this segment. As a whole, this group decreased sales 2.9 percent. Asian, which grew at 2.9 percent, was the only full-service subsegment with positive sales growth. Within this group, several mid-sized brands, including RA Sushi Bar Restaurant, Stir Crazy Asian Grill, and MuHot Mongolian Grill, drove its growth with double-digit sales increases.

Within Top 500 full-service restaurants, the real story was in the Steak category, which experienced a decline in sales of 6.4 percent, a deeper decrease than the 0.7 percent decline seen in the prior year. This group continued to be affected by declining customer traffic and check averages, slowing unit expansion and closures. Seafood and Mexican categories also posted below-average results with sales declines of 4.2 and 4.0 percent, respectively.

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