Technomic today released its preliminary results from its annual report of the 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains. Among the top 10 fastest-growing restaurant chains (with $2 million-plus in sales), seven are fast casual concepts, while two are casual dining. Jersey Mike's Subs, which is rebranding from quick-service to fast casual, is listed at No. 3.

The top 10 include: Dickey's Barbecue Pit; Firehouse Subs; Jersey Mike's; Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers; Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop; Cheddar's Casual Cafe; Buffalo Wild Wings; Chipotle Mexican Grill; Yard House; and Panda Express. 

In total, the top 10 fastest-growing chains' sales accounted for $10.3 billion, a 22-percent increase over 2011. Unit counts grew 15 percent, according to Technnomic.

The Top 500

Combined, the top 500 chains registered a 4.9-percent annual sales increase in 2012, a marked improvement over 3.5 percent the prior year. It also found that U.S. systemwide sales for the Top 500 chains grew to an estimated $254 billion in 2012, up more than $12 billion over 2011.

"It is certainly encouraging to see overall industry growth rates return to levels not seen since 2007," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic. "On a chain-by-chain basis, however, performance still varies substantially, as organizations continue adapting their value proposition to meet consumer demands, and refining operations to meet various industry challenges."

Among limited-service restaurants, the highest growth came from the Asian, Bakery Cafe and Mexican categories. Segment leaders were Panda Express (19.8 percent sales growth), Panera Bread (12.3 percent, est.) and Taco Bell (8.3 percent, est.).

McDonald's, the largest U.S. restaurant chain, boosted sales 4.2 percent in 2012, with total annual sales of $35.6 billion. Subway continues as the second largest restaurant chain in the U.S., followed by Starbucks, Wendy's and Burger King, respectively.

As a whole, limited-service restaurants saw a sales bump of 5.6 percent. Chicken chains, which grew 8.8 percent, represented another limited-service subsegment with above-average sales growth. Within this group, Chick-fil-A grew 14.1 percent with 2012 sales of $4.6 billion. Chipotle Mexican Grill had a sales growth of 20.2 percent.

Full-service restaurants experienced a 2.9 percent sales increase in 2012, a marginal increase over 2.8 percent seen in 2011, according to the report. The full-service steak and seafood categories continued to show healthy growth, with increases of 5.9 and 4.5 percent, respectively. Gains in the steak category were driven by Texas Roadhouse (12.4 percent) and LongHorn Steakhouse (12.1 percent). Among seafood chains, the category leader, Red Lobster, met the average 4.5 percent.

International growth

International performance by the Top 500 restaurant chains continued to outperform their domestic counterparts in 2012. International sales (up 5.6 percent) outpaced U.S. sales (up 4.9 percent); international unit growth was also up 8.3 percent versus 2.2 percent for U.S. units, according to Technomic.

Read more about trends and stats.

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