January 26/Chicago/PRNewswire -- The lackluster economy may have dampened growth for the restaurant industry at large, but fast-casual restaurants continue to stand out as one notable exception. With $27 billion in annual sales, fast-casual restaurants now represent 14% of all quick-service restaurant sales, compared to 5% just 10 years ago, explains food industry consultants Technomic. Sales in fast-casual are expected to continue outpacing the industry over the next five years, when fast-casual growth is forecasted to compound 8% annually.

"The fast-casual segment is still evolving in ways that are strongly influencing all sectors of the restaurant industry," said Technomic vice president Joe Pawlak, speaking to members of its Foodservice Planning Program. "While we categorize them among limited-service restaurants, they also compete strongly with full-service casual dining on several dimensions."

"Full- and quick-service operators continue to adapt and reposition their concepts toward areas in which fast casual has been effective with consumers," explained co-presenter Darren Tristano, Technomic executive vice president. "This shift will likely blur the definition of fast casual in the eyes of consumers and increase competition in the segment."

Fast casual restaurants share a fast-food service system and strong takeout orientation. Check averages tend to be under $9. Technomic breaks the segment down further into categories that include bakery cafes, Mexican/Southwest, specialty, sandwich, chicken, and burger concepts.

Panera Bread currently leads the category in total sales, at nearly $3 billion in 2010. Six of the fastest-growing restaurant chains (on a percentage basis) in the entire industry are fast-casual concepts, including Five Guys, Chipotle, Wing Stop, Qdoba, Pei Wei, and Noodles & Company.

 From the January 27, 2012, Prepared Foods' Daily News.