What exactly is Fast Casual dining?  Fast Casual dining restaurants, a relatively new market concept, have found their niche sandwiched between fast food and casual dining.  These restaurants are upscale quick service formats that offer more service along with higher quality food than their traditional fast food counterparts, yet do not provide the full table-side service associated with casual dining.

Perhaps surprisingly, this market segment has increased in popularity since the onset of the economic downturn reaching back to 2007. When you think about it though, it makes a lot of sense.  As Americans, we love our food and we love dining out, but we have to keep a watchful eye on our budgets and our waistlines.  The beauty of Fast Casual dining is that it allows us to double dip when tightening our belts.  The menus tend to be healthier than traditional fast food options, therefore reducing our calorie intake; add to that lower than average bills compared to casual dining, and we save again. Voila, the double-dip!

The NPD Group, a leading market research company, conducts the NPD Recount, a bi-annual census of restaurant counts.  According to their most recent report, the number of Fast Casual dining units has grown from 11,013 in 2007 to 13,643 in 2011.  In addition to the rise in total units, annual traffic at Fast Casual restaurants has also increased from 4% to as much as 11% during each of the past five years.  Conversely, traffic has been on the decline for fast food, casual dining and midscale establishments for the past three years, consecutively.

Source: The NPD Group, Inc.

FastCasual.com, which reports on the important news, events, trends and people in the $23.5 billion fast casual restaurant industry segment, will release their 7th annual Top 100 Movers & Shakers report in March 2012.   Which companies do you think will top the list this year?

Here were the top five 2011 Movers & Shakers:

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