Fast casual dining is the sector with the most growth in the United States, fed by consumers who are becoming more sophisticated in their eating habits, delegates at the Restaurant 2002 conference were told on Thursday.

The move away from the traditional offerings of Burger King and McDonald's was identified by Dennis Lombardi, the executive vice-president of Technomic. Lombardi pointed to an increasing number of television shows such as Two Fat Ladies as one of the reasons why consumers were becoming more demanding in what they ate.

Up and coming fast casual brands identified by Lombardi included Chipotle, a McDonald's-owned restaurant serving Mexican food with 177 units and Panera Bread, a sandwiches, soup and salad concept with 369 units.

Fast casual dining was identified as being between QSR's and full service, and although not a new sector, is currently seeing increased popularity.

Along with the success of the Two Fat Ladies, Lombardi pointed to several factors drawing consumers to the sector. They included giving consumers the chance to have greater control over their eating out experience, in this case by paying for food before, rather than after the meal. Food that is perceived as higher quality than traditional fast food was also an issue.

Lombardi was confident about the success of the sector and of the industry as a whole and said: "You can put off buying a new car for a couple of years, but you have to buy food every four to five hours, so things are looking good."