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A fast reality check

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Fast casual has been the must-watch segment of the industry for a decade, with its industry-leading growth, consumer perception-changing quality and innovation, and all that customizable goodness. Our cover tells of its growing pains, but in fact, the segment boosted sales by 8% last year—hardly hard times. Spoiler: The cover story talks more about bolstering fast casual’s strengths than defending its weaknesses.

Those of us who have been watching the industry for a long time are still excited about fast casual and its future. We’re also the same people who can give it a little perspective.

Technomic’s preliminary data for the Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report (which will be final by the time this reaches your mailbox) found that the total sales for all 99 of the fast-casual chains in the Top 500 totaled about $36.5 billion in 2016. McDonald’s sales were $36.3 billion. The segment’s unit count grew to about 26,850 last year, which is a hair over Subway’s 26,744.

This year, for the first time ever, all of the top 10 chains of the Top 500 by systemwide sales are quick service. In last year’s report, Panera Bread jumped up to replace Applebee’s—the last full-service holdout—among the top 10. Panera’s spot was short-lived, thanks to Domino’s and its 14% increase in sales.

Fast casual may be the industry darling. But as the numbers show, there’s good reason to stay excited about quick service, too. 

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