Despite worries of an economic recession in the United States, the fast casual segment is poised to continue its advancement in the restaurant industry, according to panelists at "The Fast Casual Phenomenon", an educational session held at this year's National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel show and hosted by Fast Casual magazine.
According to industry data cited by Fast Casual senior editor and panelist Valerie Killifer, the top 180 fast-casual brands combined for $16 billion in revenue last year, and the segment is predicted to grow six to eight percent in 2008. Larry Reinstein, president and CEO of Fresh Concepts, and another panelist at the session, said that economic woes shouldn't mean a doomsday outlook for fast casual brands. "Fast casuals are extremely well-positioned to handle it," he said.
In addition to the economic discussion, panelists explored a wide range of issues facing fast-casual operators, such as franchising, brand recognition and loyalty, the selection of ingredients and the creation of new menu items.
 Participants ended the discussion with a look at the future of fast casuals, during which panelist Ed Frechette, senior VP of marketing for Au Bon Pain, emphasized brand clarity and progression as being crucial to the prolonged success of the segment.  "We have to continue to evolve," he said.  "If we're standing still, we're going to be behind tomorrow." 
Other panelists included Louis Basile, cofounder of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Wildflower Bread Co.; Marc Geman, CEO of Denver-based Spicy Pickle; and Alan Hixon, president of Dallas-based Freebirds World Burritos.

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