Fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle, Panera show gains

The sense of malaise settling over much of the restaurant industry seems to have missed a spot: the still-growing fast-casual segment that includes chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread.

A new report from researchers at the NPD Group found that the number of upscale quick-service eateries — known for higher service levels, better-quality food and larger check sizes than their fast-food cousins — grew 7 percent in the year ended in May.

Foot traffic into such establishments rose 9 percent as customer visits to the restaurant industry as a whole stagnated.

“Traditional quick service restaurants have taken notice and are working to compete with the fast-casual chains' offerings, especially in terms of the freshness and quality of food,” said Greg Starzynski, director of product management for NPD's food service unit.

Wall Street has taken note of fast-casual's trajectory. Chipotle's stock is up about 35 percent so far this year.

When Noodles & Co. debuted in late June, it became the year's top-performing initial public offering, rising 104 percent. It was upstaged this month by Sprouts Farmers Market's launch.

Panera's second-quarter earnings showed a 16 percent surge in profit. Though the bakery-cafe chain revised down the low end of its predicted range for fiscal year same-store sales growth to 3 percent from 4 percent, it said it may exceed expectations to open up to 125 locations in 2013.

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