Bakery cafes have emerged as high-fliers in the restaurant industry, and are well-positioned to leverage new growth opportunities as the economy continues its slow recovery, according to Technomic’s 2009 Technomic Top 25 Bakery Cafe Chains Restaurant Report.

System-wide sales for the bakery cafe industry grew by 12 percent to more than $4.5 billion in 2008. Industry leaders Panera Bread, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Au Bon Pain accounted for the lion’s share of sales, with $2.6 billion, $393 million, and $307 million, respectively.

“The consumer trade-down from full-service to limited-service formats that solidified through 2008 and into 2009 allowed fast-casual bakery cafes to truly shine,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at foodservice industry consultant Technomic. “The appeal of moderately priced, high-quality menu offerings served in contemporary ambiance, as well as consumer perception of value for this format, has more than likely strengthened over the past year.”

The findings are detailed in the new study released by Technomic. Some trends, chains, and products examined in this report include: health and nutrition (Einstein Bros.); expansion of breakfast offerings (Atlanta Bread Company, Corner Bakery Café, and Panera Bread); revamped catering programs (Au Bon Pain); value equation (La Madeleine, Einstein Bros., Au Bon Pain); nontraditional sites and urban locations (Corner Bakery Café, Einstein Bros.); and use of social media.

The Top 25 bakery cafe chains’ sales reached more than $4.5 billion and grew by 11.8 percent in 2008. Units expanded by 6.6 percent to 3,107 locations. Panera Bread represented over half of the Top 25 chains’ sales in 2008. The next closest concept was Einstein Bros. Bagels, with less than 10 percent of the Top 25’s sales. Unit count was more widely spread, with Panera Bread making up 42.6 percent and Einstein Bros. Bagels comprising 16 percent of unit share. Paradise Bakery & Cafe had the fastest rate of sales growth at 30.7 percent. Le Pain Quotidien was the leader in store count growth rate at 29.6 percent.

News, Sandwiches, Au Bon Pain, Corner Bakery Cafe, Einstein Bros. Bagels, La Madeleine, Panera Bread