The success of the fast casual restaurants is set to increasingly influence the rest of the eating out market, according to leading research company NPD Group. The company’s research has found that fast casual is the only restaurant segment continuing to grow throughout the current economic downturn, which is motivating chains in other segments to renovate, upgrade and enhance their offer. NPD said that although the fast-casual sector is relatively underdeveloped, the number of sites in the category increased by a double-digit rate over the last three years. The fast-casual segment accounts for only about 4% of the more than 60 billion visits to all restaurants in the year ending in June 2011, NPD said. By comparison, about 61% of those visits were to quick-service restaurants. However, NPD said that since 2007 fast-casual chains have seen dramatic increases in traffic, while quick-service and casual-dining restaurants have experienced minimal increases or declines. NPD’s “Fast Casual: A Growing Market” report also found that consumer demand for fast-casual dining outpaced the industry’s rate of expansion, and several chains in the segment have built strong customer loyalty. Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst, said: “Many fast-casual concepts were positioned as a fresh, made-to-order alternative to traditional fast food options, and consumers responded positively. The segment benefited from fast-food consumers trading up and full-service consumers trading down.” NPD said that as result of the success of their fast-casual counterparts several quick-service chains have begun offering more premium products and healthful options, and upgrading interiors with upscale and modern looks that can compete on a fast-casual level. Riggs said: “Fast-casual concepts are in an excellent position for growth, relative to the overall industry. However, the same growth opportunities are available to any restaurant operator able to innovate, provide value for money and not just keep up, but surpass competitors.”