Though the recession took a toll on most restaurant sectors in 2009, fast-casual chains benefited from consumers trading down from full-service restaurants to lower-priced but still higher quality fresh food.

Foodservice industry consultant Technomic, Chicago, says its latest report shows 2009 sales for the Top 100 fast-casual chains reached $17.5 billion, a 4.5 percent increase over 2008, and units grew by 4.3 percent to 14,777 locations.

Fast-casual restaurants are part of the limited-service segment, and provide fast service and fresh, high quality food in upscale settings. Technomic says its "2010 Top 100 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report" provides rankings, analysis and profiles of the leading chains, and helps chain operators and foodservice suppliers understand emerging trends and players in today’s fastest growing segment.

Select findings include:

- Panera Bread/Saint Louis Bread Companyremained the leader of the fast-casual subsegment overall, with 2009 sales of nearly $2.8 billion, a 7.1 percent increase over 2008. U.S. units increased by 4.3 percent to 1,304 stores.Chipotleheld on to the number two spot, growing sales 13.9 percent to $1.5 billion, and U.S. units by 14.2 percent to 955 locations.

- Bakery café/bagelwas the most prevalent type of fast-casual chain, jumping from 17 percent to 21 percent of the Top 100 in 2009.Mexican and other sandwich(not hamburger) were the second and third most common menu categories. The other sandwich category took the biggest hit, dropping to 16 percent from 19 percent of fast-casual chains in 2008.

-Bakery café/bagelremained the largest of all fast-casual clusters, generating $4.8 billion in U.S. sales in 2009. Mexican and chicken rounded out the top three, with total sales of $3.8 billion and $2.5 billion, respectively.

- Fastest-growing menu categories among the Top 100 fast-casual chains werehamburger (up 16.7 percent),Asian/noodle(up 6.4 percent) andMexican(up 6.3 percent). Most of this sales growth was a result of unit expansion throughout the year.

- Fast-casual menus are differentiating themselves through the service ofadult beverages. While they still have more room to grow, beer, wine or spirits are sold in nearly 40 percent of fast-casual chains.

“Growth within the fast-casual segment reveals positive consumer preferences for the service format, concept and menu positioning, and price points,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic. “But competition is still fierce and dining-out dollars are still minimal. Fast-casual operators will have to continue being creative with value-oriented menu offerings, uniqueness in terms of flavor, preparation and quality, and new ways to bolster the bottom line.”