The 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains saw average annual sales growth of 3.5% last year, a significant decline from 2012's 4.9%, according to Technomic's annual report on these top chains.
U.S. systemwide sales for the top 500 grew to an estimated $264 billion in 2013, up more than $8.8 billion versus 2012.
"Competition for share of stomach is getting more and more challenging," noted Ron Paul, president of the foodservice consultancy. "But brands that have found a way to differentiate themselves are gaining market share."
Among chains with annual sales over $200 million, the fastest-growing last year were Dickey's Barbeque Pit (+32.9%, to $331 million); Smashburger (+32%, to $215 million); Raising Caine's Chicken Fingers (+23.6%, to $321 million); Marco's Pizza (+22.6%, to $234 million; and Jersey Mike's Subs (+21.2%, to $406 million).
Among chains with annual sales under $200 million, the fastest-growing were BurgerFi (+178.1%, to $45 million); Del Fisco's Grille (+83.9%, to $44 million); Twin Peaks (+68.4%, to $165 million); CherryBerry (+63.2%, to $62 million); and Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt (+48.6%, to $114 million).
Limited-service restaurants saw an average sales gain of 3.9%.
Within this category, Asian, bakery cafe and coffee cafe categories saw the greatest growth, lead by Panda Express (10.7%), Panera Bread (11.8%) and Starbucks (10.6%).
Chicken chains also saw above-average growth: 5.1%. Chick-fil-A surpassed KFC as the top chicken chain, with a 9.3% sales gain that brought its 2013 sales to $5.1 billion.
Still-reigning #1 U.S. restaurant chain McDonald's saw just 0.7% growth, to reach $35.9 billion in sales. Subway continues as the second-largest chain, followed by Starbucks, Wendy's and Burger King.
Full-service restaurants saw 2.4% average sales growth, slightly down from 2012's 2.9% gain.
The full-service steak category continued to show healthy growth of 6.2%, led by LongHorn Steakhouse (12.8%) and Texas Roadhouse (11.1%).
Among varied-menu chains, which had average growth of 2.5%, the category leader was Buffalo Wild Wings, up 12.9%.
More than 67% of the top 500 restaurant chains posted at least nominal sales increases (just 156 saw sales declines in 2013, versus 168 in 2012).
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 domestic growth in 2013.
The top 500 chains' international sales increases (4.4%) continued to outpace their U.S. sales growth (3.5%), and international unit growth was up 9%, versus 2.2% for U.S. units.