CHICAGO – Non-beef patties, gluten-free buns and craft beer may help drive growth for burger chains, a segment that slipped in sales last year, according to Technomic, Inc., Chicago.

While U.S. sales for top limited-service burger chains totaled $72 billion in 2013, the category posted nominal growth of 1.2%, which equaled a decline when adjusting for price inflation. Units increased by 1% to 42,853 locations.

Quick-service restaurant chains contributed $69.7 billion in sales but grew just 0.9% in sales volume on weak performance from McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King. But other fast-food brands showed stronger growth, including In-N-Out Burger, with its simple menu and value price point, as well as Culver’s and Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, both supported by the appeal of their frozen desserts.

Fast-casual fared better with a sales growth of 10.4%, led by Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Smashburger. Still, Five Guys’ growth slowed to 5% in 2013 compared to 14% in 2012, signaling segment saturation in metropolitan markets, Technomic said.

Smaller regional chains, such as Habit Burger Grill, Shake Shack and BurgerFi, reported strong double- to triple-digit growth on the strength of high-quality protein, toppings and buns and strong beverage platforms featuring craft beer, wine and customizable soft drinks.

"Consumer demand for health and wellness will drive success for brands that differentiate by quality, and innovation efforts will continue to drive impulse visits for trial," said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic.

Burger blends, such as the mixture of ground beef and ground bacon at California-based Slater’s 50/50, as well as beef alternatives, improved buns, and more customizable options will set new standards within the category, Mr. Tristano added.