John Maday
Managing Editor
Drovers CattleNetwork

Among all the negative news coverage related to beef, it’s nice to see that restaurant patrons still love a good burger. According to a release previewing an annual report from market-research company Technomic Inc., Five Guys Burgers and Fries was the fastest growing large chain last year, with a 32.8 percent growth in sales.

Overall, sales at the top 500 U.S. restaurant chains for 2011 grew by an average of 3.4 percent, up significantly from 1.8 percent growth during 2010. U.S. system-wide sales for the Top 500 chains grew to an estimated $242 billion in 2011, up more than $8 billion over 2010.

McDonald’s remains the largest U.S. restaurant chain, with total annual sales of $34.2 billion. The chain saw a sales increase of 5.5 percent in 2011. News reports this week noted a shift in the distant second-place slot among burger restaurants, with Wendy’s posting $8.5 billion in 2011 sales to move ahead of Burger King, with $8.4 billion. Subway continues as the second largest restaurant chain in the U.S., followed by Starbucks, Wendy’s and Burger King. While leading the pack in terms of growth, Five Guys, with $951 million in sales in 2011, remains well behind the big, established chains.

Steak restaurants also outperformed the average during 2011, according to the report, with 5.1 percent sales growth. Full-service restaurants overall expanded sales by just 2.8 percent. Long Horn Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse were the growth leaders among steak chains with sales increases of 13.1 and 9.2 percent respectively. Seafood chains averaged 5.2 percent growth for the year.

It appears the growth trend was fairly broad across restaurant categories, which is a positive sign for consumer confidence and an indicator of economic improvement. More than 60 percent of the Top 500 restaurant chains posted at least some sales increases during 2011. Of the 500 chains, just 193 saw sales decline in 2011, compared with 231 in 2010. The authors note that winners and losers appeared in every segment and menu category, illustrating the overall competitiveness of the industry.