Rumblings of restaurant industry recovery aren't unfounded. Technomic, Inc. released its annual report on the performance of the 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains in late March and the news is positive. Collectively, the group registered a 4.9 percent annual sales increase in 2012, a marked improvement over 3.5 percent the prior year. U.S. system-wide sales for the Top 500 chains grew to an estimated $254 billion in 2012, up more than $12 billion over 2011, and unit growth was 2.2 percent.

Limited-service restaurants saw a sales bump of 5.6 percent from 2011 to 2012 compared to a 2.9 percent increase in full-service restaurant sales, according to Technomic estimates. Among LSRs, chicken chains made the biggest gain, with 8.8 percent sales growth. Among FSRs, the strongest sub-segments were steak, up 5.9 percent, and seafood, up 4.5 percent.

The Top 10 fastest growing chains together grew their sales by 22 percent in 2012 and units by 15 percent. All but two of the Top 10, ranked by sales growth below, had double-digit gains in percent unit growth for the year.

  2012 % sales growth 2012 % unit growth
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit 46.5* 40.4
Firehouse Subs 33.5 19.3
Jersey Mike’s Subs 26.3* 15.2
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers 26.0* 26.1
Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich Shop 24.6 17.4
Cheddar’s Casual Café 23.2 21.7
Buffalo Wild Wings 21.0 8.7
Chipotle Mexican Grill 20.2 14.2
Yard House 20.1 17.1
Panda Express 19.8 9.5

*Technomic estimate

International performance by the Top 500 restaurant chains continued to outperform their domestic counterparts in 2012. International sales (up 5.6 percent) outpaced U.S. sales (up 4.9 percent); international unit growth was also up 8.3 percent versus 2.2 percent for U.S. units.