CHICAGO — The 500 largest U.S. restaurant chains achieved a 4.9% annual sales increase in 2012 to reach an estimated $254 billion, according to market researcher Technomic. The percentage increase marked an improvement from the 3.5% increase during the previous year. Total sales at these chains were up more than $12 billion from 2011.

“It is certainly encouraging to see overall industry growth rates return to levels not seen since 2007,” said Ron Paul, president of Technomic. “On a chain-by-chain basis, however, performance still varies substantially as organizations continue adapting their value proposition to meet consumer demands and refining operations to meet various industry challenges.”

Limited-service restaurants saw sales increase 5.6%, with Asian, bakery café and Mexican categories driving increases through 19.8% growth at Panda Express, 12.3% growth at Panera Bread and 8.3% growth at Taco Bell. Chicken chains saw 8.8% growth with Chick-fil-A growing 14%. Chipotle Mexican Grill led the Mexican fast-casual segment with growth of 20.2%. While McDonald’s is still the largest U.S. restaurant chain, Subway is second followed by Starbucks, Wendy’s and Burger King.

Full-service restaurants grew 2.9%, up slightly from 2.8% during the previous year. Steak and seafood categories showed growth with Texas Roadhouse up 12.4%, LongHorn Steakhouse up 12% and Red Lobster up 4.5%.

The top 10 fastest-growing chains are Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, Firehouse Subs, Jersey Mike’s Subs, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich Shop, Cheddar’s Casual Café, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Yard House and Panda Express. Sales from these chains accounted for $10.3 billion in the year, up 22% from 2011, and unit counts grew 15%. Additionally, more than 60% of the top 500 restaurant chains posted at least a small sales increase with only 168 of these chains seeing declines in 2012. In 2011, 193 of these chains saw declines. These chains also did better internationally than domestically with international sales growing 5.6% and U.S. sales growing 4.9%.