The 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains registered a 3.4 percent annual sales increase in 2011, a sharp improvement over 1.8 percent the prior year, according to new data released by research firm Technomic Inc.

The report found that U.S. systemwide sales for the Top 500 chains grew to an estimated $242 billion in 2011, up more than $8 billion over 2010.

"It is certainly encouraging to see overall industry growth rates nearly double in one year," said Ron Paul, president of Technomic. "On a chain-by-chain basis, however, performance varied substantially, reflecting the fact that many organizations are still redefining their value propositions for today's economy and tackling various industry challenges."

Among limited-service restaurants, growth came from the coffee and tea, other sandwich and Mexican categories with Starbucks, Subway and Chipotle Mexican Grill posting 2011 estimated sales growth of 7.5, 7.5 and 23.4 percent, respectively.

McDonald's, the largest U.S. restaurant chain, boosted sales of 5.5 percent in 2011, with total annual sales of $34.2 billion.

Subway continues as the second largest restaurant chain in the U.S., followed by Starbucks, Wendy's and Burger King. This is the first time Wendy's has reported higher sales than Burger King, moving the chain into the No. 2 spot for American hamburger chains for the first time in its 42-year history.

As a whole, limited-service restaurants saw a sales bump of 3.7 percent. Bakery cafe chains, which grew 7.1 percent, represented another limited-service subsegment with above-average sales growth. Within this group, Panera grew 10.1 percent with 2011 sales of $3.3 billion.

Other fast casual chains also contributed to stronger 2011 performance. A standout in the segment was Five Guys Burgers and Fries with sales growth of 32.8 percent.

The 10 fastest-growing chains with sales over $200 million include:

  1. Five Guys Burgers and Fries: $951MM in 2011 U.S. sales, a 32.8 percent sales change versus 2010. The chain grew 24.7 percent in unit count.
  2. Chipotle Mexican Grill: $2,261MM in 2011 U.S. sales, a 23.4 percent jump vs. 2010. The chain grew its footprint by 13 percent.
  3. Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwich Shop: $895MM in 2011 sales, up 21.8 percent. The company grew in units by 17.1 percent.
  4. Yard House: $262MM, up 21.5 percent. The company's units grew 20.7 percent.
  5. Firehouse Subs: $285MM in 2011 sales, up 21.1 percent. The chain's unit count is up 19 percent.
  6. BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse: $621MM, up 20.9 percent. The chain's unit count grew by 12.7 percent.
  7. Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar: $2,045MM in sales, up 20.1 percent. The chain's unit count increased by 11.6 percent.
  8. Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers: $206MM in 2011 sales, an 18.2 percent bump. The company's footprint grew by 24 percent.
  9. Noodles & Company: $300MM in sales for a 14.9 percent increase over 2010. The company has 11.4 percent more units.
  10. Wingstop: $382MM in sales, up 14.7 percent. The chain has 3.4 percent more units.

In total, the top 10 fastest-growing chains' sales accounted for $8.2 billion, a 22 percent increase over 2010. Unit counts grew 15 percent.

More than 60 percent of the Top 500 restaurant chains posted at least nominal sales increases; only 193 of these chains suffered sales declines in 2011 compared to 231 in 2010.

Both winners and losers appeared in every segment and menu category. These widely-mixed results demonstrate the overall competitiveness of the industry and the need for suppliers and operators to carefully identify and focus on the winners.

International performance by the Top 500 restaurant chains continued to outperform their domestic counterparts in 2011. International sales (up 6.4 percent) outpaced U.S. sales (up 3.4 percent); international unit growth was also up 6.5 percent versus 0.7 percent for U.S. units.

The Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report provides Technomic's 1-year sales forecast by menu category, update on franchise and international activity, 5-, 10- and 20-year trend analyses, outlook for the future, market share by menu category, and much more.

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