The fast-casual segment has rebounded since 2016, but experienced a consecutive year of single-digit sales growth performance in 2017, according to findings released by Technomic, Chicago. The report, “Top 250 Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant Report,” reveals unit growth decreased for the third consecutive year, dropping from 9.8% in 2015 to 6.1% in 2017.

“Although the segment shows signs of slowing, fast casual is still a bright spot in the industry," says Dave Henkes, senior principal. "There are a lot of exciting things happening on fast-casual menus, and as the U.S. market becomes increasingly crowded, we can expect many of these brands to look internationally to further bolster their brand."

Key themes from the report include:

  • Total sales growth in 2017 was at 9% for the Top 250 restaurant chains.
  • Chicken was the hot protein of 2017.
  • Despite being the smallest fast-casual menu category by sales, the pizza segment continued to outshine the others, with a 27.3% year-over-year increase.

Looking forward, expect to see fast casuals featuring a larger focus on clean-eating initiatives and planet-friendly changes. Ethnic flavors and ingredients will also thrive in the coming year with the rise of Middle Eastern concepts, touting exotic yet healthful menu items. Chains looking for more exponential growth will look to unpenetrated global markets such as Australia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates.