There’s no need to convince people in the foodservice industry that fast-casuals are all the rage. They already know.

Today the fast-casual fan fair was made legitimate, however, with the debut of a new report by foodservice consultants Technomic.

According to the “2009 Top 100 Fast-Casual Restaurant Report,” the top category earners brought in 16.7 billion in 2008, up 10.8 percent from 2007. And unit growth was up, too. The top 100 fast-casuals grew by 7.3 percent over the last year.

While it’s no surprise Panera topped the list with $2.6 billion worth of sales, things start to get interesting once its numbers are compared to No. 2 Chipotle ($1.3 billion in sales).

Parnera’s sales increase in 2008 was 4.5 percentage points lower than Chipotle’s. In addition it’s 13.5 percent unit growth, which drove the company’s sales increases, was nearly 6 percentage points lower than Chipotle’s.

To the naked eye Panera’s slower growth and smaller sales increase might signal a move to the top for Chipotle. But that’s inaccurate, according to Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic.

“It’s going to be a stretch to think Chipotle could surpass Panera’s sales,” he says. They’d be more likely to surpass their units than sales since the AUVs are much higher. But even if they had more units they would still be at an AUV that’s 15 percent less than Panera.”

He goes on to explain that while Panera’s bakery-café segment is still relatively untapped, Chipotle is wading through the saturated Mexican category competing with $5 billion-giant Taco Bell.

Bakery-café concepts generated $4.3 billion in sales last year, accounting for more than a quarter of the top 100’s sales, while Mexican fast-casuals garnered $3.6 billion.

“Chipotle’s growth and strength is in their fast-casual positioning,” Tristano says. “In terms of trying to catch up with Panera, which has catering and off-premise business and big opportunities across multiple dayparts, it’s a stretch.”

Perhaps the most surprising category performance came from the Asian/Noodle concepts, which experienced a sales increase of 13.6 percent, the largest segment sales increase of all.

–Blair Chancey

Finance, News, Sandwiches, Panera Bread