Fast casual chains poised to grow

Fast casual restaurants are projected to grow faster than any other restaurant segment in 2010, according to new data from foodservice consulting firm Technomic of Chicago.

Fast casual restaurants — including new seafood chains like Fish Camp, Corner Fish Grill, California Fish Grill and Fish Express — will grow at a 4.5 percent rate throughout this year, Technomic reported at its recent "Restaurants 2010: Trends & Directions" conference.

"With very few players in the fast casual seafood category, this underserved niche has opportunity, given the price points and quality that seafood has to offer consumers. We are seeing some early signs of growth in this underserved category," said Technomic Executive VP Darren Tristano.
Fast casual menu trends that are a boon to the seafood industry include the growth of salad sales at the chains. Entrée salad sales are up 13.7 percent overall, and sales of seafood sales rose 7.7 percent in 2009, according to Technomic. Seafood items also benefit from fast casual chains' new light or low-calorie menus, including low-calorie menus at Corner Bakery, McAlister's Deli, Einstein Bros. Bagels and la Madeleine.

By comparison, limited-service restaurants will grow by only 1 percent and overall restaurant industry growth will hit around 0.8 percent in 2010. "Our restaurant growth forecasts are still at historic lows," according to a statement in the conference report.  

While full-service restaurants are making a comeback in 2010, their growth is projected to be minimal at 0.5 percent. Seafood full-service restaurant growth is projected to be flat in 2010, but the segment was down 9.5 percent in 2009, so "flat" growth is an improvement.

Fast casual chains have realized the highest growth rate this year because they typically feature lower prices for quick, healthy food.

"Price point is truly driving consumer behavior. It used be the quality of food, but even that and healthy positioning are not driving consumers," said Tristano.

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