CHICAGO — The fast casual restaurant segment is establishing itself well with the category estimated to reach sales of $23 billion in 2010, up 30% from 2006, according to Mintel International.

“The relatively new fast casual category has fared well through the recession as people can see the added value in the food and atmosphere, despite the slightly higher price point,” said Eric Giandelone, director of food service research at Mintel. “The majority of restaurant-goers say quality is the most important determinant in their choice of a restaurant, which will continue to help this category grow.”

Fast casual has a price point of $6 to $12 per ticket, and the restaurants distinguish themselves from fast food through modified table service, higher food quality and greater attention to healthful foods.

Despite the success of the segment, it has not outpaced fast food, casual dining, pizza or family dining restaurants. However, the category does the most business during lunch and has patronage levels about the equivalent of casual dining during that time. Yet even during lunch fast food outpaces fast casual.

The category is behind simply because there aren’t as many fast casual restaurants as fast food restaurants with McDonald’s having 10 times the number of restaurants in the United States as Panera Bread.