Restaurant growth accelerates on continued boom in higher-end fast food

By Samantha Bomkamp
Chicago Tribune
March 25, 2016

Growth in the restaurant industry accelerated in 2015, research firm Technomic said, driven by a continued boom in the higher-end quick-service category that includes chains like Chipotle, Panera and Blaze Pizza.

The 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains posted combined sales of about $288 billion last year, Technomic said, a 4.9 percent increase from a year earlier. Sales in the so-called fast-casual segment jumped 11.4 percent, nearly double the rate of any other segment.

“While the performance of the top 500 chains showed moderate improvement over the prior year, consumers clearly favored patronage of fast casual and fast-food restaurants,” Technomic President Darren Tristano said in a news release. “In full service, family style restaurants succeeded on affordable value, upscale casual dining chains appealed to more affluent consumers and many traditional casual dining chains appeared to be squeezed in the middle with weaker performance.”

Within the fast-casual segment, chains that focused on healthier offerings were the winners last year. Chains like Freshii, Sweetgreen and Zoes Kitchen led the way, Technomic said. Freshii has a number of locations in the Chicago area, including some in Target stores and high-rise office buildings. Sweetgreen is planning to open its first Chicago location soon, set for River North. Zoes Kitchen does not have Chicago-area restaurants.

With improved sales, the biggest chains were also able to expand. Technomic found that the top 500 — which ranks chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks and Subway at the top — increased locations last year by 2.1 percent, to a combined 223,000 locations.

After losing ground in 2014, McDonald’s sales rose 1.1 percent last year, partially due to the introduction of all-day breakfast, Technomic said. Starbucks sales grew the most, by 12.8 percent, followed by Taco Bell and Burger King, with gains of 8.2 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively.



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