Growth for Fast Casual

May 19/Chicago/Chicago Sun Times -- Fast casual -- a step up from fast food and down from full-service restaurants -- has been a bright spot amid recent dismal restaurant industry performance, panelists told attendees at the National Restaurant Show at McCormick Place.

Up to 700 chains will be introduced this year, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic Information Services.

Technomic's list of the Top 100 fast-casual restaurant chains saw sales grow 10.8% last year over the previous year, totaling $16.7 billion for 2008. The National Restaurant Association expects sales to drop 2.5% at restaurants overall this year.

Woman are driving the growth at the limited-service operators, which provide fast service and quality food in upscale settings and include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Panera Bread and Deerfield-based Cosi Inc.

About 25% of the segment's customers are career women, and 15% are female homemakers.

Career men account for about 18% of the business.

From the May 26, 2009, Prepared Foods E-dition