Panera, Chipotle, and the Upstarts Nibbling Away at the Restaurant Giants

Fast-food giants and casual sit-down chains alike have trembled for years at the unstoppable rise of the fast-casual restaurants. Unable to lift sales, McDonald’s and Applebee’s are both trying to figure out how to excite customers as all the buzz – and sales growth – moves toward such joints as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread.

For all you hear about Obama’s favored burrito bar, Chipotle and other waiter-free restaurants actually remain a fairly small part of the restaurant industry, representing roughly 7.7 percent of total sales, according to data from researcher Technomic. And following years of rapid growth are signs that this market is maturing and coming under pressure from weak consumer spending. Panera, for instance, reported Tuesday that same-store sales were flat last quarter and up only 0.1 percent in the first quarter, the weakest results since 2009.

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