LOS ANGELES -- Fast-food eateries are in the throes of drive-through Darwinism as more upscale upstarts, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread Co., grab market share from the likes of Taco Bell, Subway, and Wendy's.
Chains that are fancier than fast-food options but cheaper than sit-down alternatives are part of a hybrid sector known as fast-casual that is maturing into one of the food industry's strongest.
That category is tapping into growing demand for more healthful, specialty foods that are still speedily served and moderately priced. Fast-casual is poaching fast-food customers looking for better quality and sit-down diners seeking cheaper prices, NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said.
"There's no end in sight to their growth," Ms. Riggs said. "They've delivered on consumers' value expectations far more than most fast-food places."
The evolution happens as the rest of the industry fights for a shrinking customer base amid a slow economic recovery and high food prices.
Fast-casual is still only a small segment of the industry. But it tripled its market share in roughly the past decade to about 6 percent of restaurants and is the industry's only segment to grow in the past five years, analysts said. In 2010, major fast-casual chains pulled in $18.9 billion -- a 6 percent increase, according to research group Technomic.
"This category has essentially blown through the recession without skipping a beat," Technomic Executive Vice President Darren Tristano said in a statement.
Formerly known as adult fast food, fast-casual generally includes restaurants that have limited table service and no drive-throughs. They are also often perceived to have higher-end decor, food quality, and prices.
But the boundaries are blurring. Eateries such as Carl's Jr., with its Six Dollar Burger, and foodie favorite In-N-Out straddle the line between fast-casual and fast food.
Drive-throughs are appearing at Panera locations. Some fast-casual chains are experimenting with delivery, usually an option provided by sit-down restaurants.
"We're going to continue to see more fuzziness in how to define these restaurants," said Robert L. Sandelman of food service research group Sandelman & Associates.
Panera, which has about 1,500 outlets nationwide -- including several in the Toledo area -- is turning in especially impressive numbers. In the third quarter its profit was $28.8 million, up 27 percent compared with the same period in 2010. The company's stock price has soared to more than $150 per share.
On days when Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., resident Jason Seliskar, 38, doesn't have time to cook, he and his wife swing by Panera.
"We can get in and get out and still have a relatively nice experience," the elementary school teacher said. "I can walk away without thinking I gave myself a gut bomb and damaged my body."
Bakery-cafe restaurants, such as Panera and Corner Bakery Cafe, are leading the charge, analysts said, followed by so-called better-burger chains such as Five Guys, the Counter, and the Shake Shack. Other fast growers include Asian and Mexican eateries and noodle shops.
Perceived food quality is key to fast-casual's rise, according to a survey by the MarketForce research firm. Customers ranked Panera, Chipotle, and Five Guys high while pushing fast-food companies Burger King, McDonald's, and Taco Bell to the bottom. Chipotle and Five Guys also have Toledo-area sites.
In the same study, fast-casual restaurants also scored among the best for atmosphere, healthful options, and eco-friendly business practices.
BurgerFi, a Florida-based chain, and French chain Planetalis, which opened its first U.S. site in Los Angeles in December, have vegetarian burgers and decor made with recycled materials. Chipotle recently released popular ads touting family farms and emphasizing sustainable and humane practices.
Fast-casual chains also tend to have distinctive decor, such as the international-cafe feel of the Cosi sandwich chain and Pei Wei Asian Diner's glossy vibe.
"These restaurants offer a more pleasant experience -- unlike a fast-food place that's less clean than you'd like it to be, smelling like grease, and small too," said analyst Jason Moser of Motley Fool.
Fast-food chains are far from helpless. McDonald's, for example, continues to see hefty revenue. But many chains are feeling the heat. Wendy's Chief Executive Emil Brolick recently spoke of his firm as going through an "identity crisis."
"I'm not … suggesting that we want to try to pretend to become a Five Guys or a Smashburger or something like that," he said on a call with analysts. "But I do believe that there is a significant opportunity in the market for high-quality products that are fresh and made to order."
Some fast-food chains have already made shifts in that direction.
Ads from Burger King, KFC, and Taco Bell have switched focus from gimmicky characters and low-price guarantees to lush images and descriptions of fresh ingredients.
"Fast food is going to be making a slow but very methodical change toward healthier eating simply out of necessity, or else they're going to risk becoming marginalized by fast-casual," Mr. Moser said.
Other companies are expanding their specialty and premium offerings, with McCafe and Angus burger lines from McDonald's, Artisan Pizza from Domino's, and a Steakhouse burger from Carl's Jr. White Castle is testing alcohol sales as well as an Asian noodle concept, a barbecue joint, and a grilled sandwich shop.
And several fast-food chains are upgrading their looks. Subway has begun opening eco-restaurants with recycled materials and solar panels. Wendy's has new store prototypes that take design cues from Frank Lloyd Wright and allow patrons to watch their food being prepared.
But it may take more to win back customers such as Pasadena, Calif., photographer Justin Saiki, 30, who grew up eating fast food.
Now that he's more health-conscious, he eats at Five Guys about once a week and occasionally at Chipotle, where the food seems fresh instead of "premade and sitting on a warmer," he said.
"It all goes back to quality," Mr. Saiki said. "You just don't feel as guilty."