CHICAGO — The fast-casual restaurant segment has experienced slowing growth but remains a "bright spot" in the industry, according to a recent report from Technomic Inc. Total sales growth in 2017 was at 9% for the top 250 restaurant chains, Technomic said.

Fast-casual pizza chains had the highest year-over-year sales increase, Technomic said. The smallest fast-casual menu category by sales, the pizza segment experienced a 27.3% year-over-year sales increase.

Unit growth in the fast-casual segment decreased for the third year in a row, dropping to 6.1% in 2017 from 9.8% in 2015, Technomic said. However, a handful of fast-casual chains experienced triple-digit unit growth during the year, including CoreLife Eatery and Wahlburgers.

“Although the segment shows signs of slowing, fast-casual is still a bright spot in the industry,” said Dave Henkes, senior principal at Technomic. “There are a lot of exciting things happening on fast-casual menus and, as the U.S. market becomes increasingly crowded, we can expect many of these brands to look internationally to further bolster their brand.”

In 2017, chicken was the preferred protein in the fast-casual category, Technomic said, and several restaurants capitalized on the poultry’s popularity. In 2018, consumers will continue to seek better-for-you options and global flavors.

“Looking forward, expect to see fast-casuals featuring a larger focus on clean eating initiatives and planet-friendly changes to align with growing concerns among consumers,” Technomic said. “Ethnic flavors and ingredients will also thrive in the coming year with the rise of Middle Eastern concepts, touting exotic yet healthful menu items.”