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NEW YORK -- Quick-casual restaurants, led by Noodles & Company, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Baja Fresh Mexican Grill and other cafe-style restaurants are becoming the fastest-growing segment in the foodservice dining industry, according to a report by Chicago-based Technomic Inc., beating out traditional favorites like McDonald's and Burger King.
The quick-casual restaurant offers upscale elements like china plates, stainless steel tabletops and wood-paneled walls. It is these little touches -- as well as their emphasis on quality and nutrition -- that have made quick casual the big buzz among diners, reports The Detroit News.
Many American consumers have raised their expectations when it comes to a quick meal. Consumers' budgets may be limited, but their desire for healthy offerings are overcoming their love for salty fries and calorie-rich milk shakes.
As a result, while McDonald's Corp. ranks tops when it comes to revenues, quick casual is gaining momentum. As a group, sales at the 15 largest quick-casual chains grew 12 percent in 2002, according to industry watcher Technomic Inc. Meanwhile, McDonald's sales were up 1.3 percent and Burger King's dropped 3.4 percent.
At Denver-based Noodles restaurants, customers order at a counter and wait for their meals at a nearby table. The tab usually runs between $6 and $10. The food is made to order and emphasizes a balanced diet of protein and carbohydrates.
Quick-casual restaurants look for locations with high visibility and easy access. Their favorite sites are in cities with lots of hungry office workers as well as growing neighborhoods of young couples and families.
Rather than walk away without a fight, fast-food chains have decided to join the crowd. In 2002, Wendy's purchased Baja Fresh, which serves "healthy Mexican food." And McDonald's has a stable of concepts, including Chipotle Mexican Grill; Fazoli's, an Italian eaterie; Pret A Manger, a ready-to-eat sandwich shop; and Donatos Pizzeria.
Quick-casual dining is fast becoming consumers' favorite. The following enjoyed double digit growth in 2002.
Quizno's Classic Subs: 69 percent
Chipotle Mexican Grill: 55 percent
Panera Bread Co.: 43 percent
Baja Fresh Mexican Grill: 41 percent
Source: Technomic Inc.