CHICAGO — The number of bakery cafe units operating in the United States increased more than 4% during the past three years while sales at those units rose 12%, according to the “Bakery Cafe Consumer Trend Report” from Technomic.

Technomic said the bakery cafe segment, which accounts for $5 billion in annual sales and more than 3,600 units nationwide, “has been able to successfully navigate the middle ground between quick- and full-service restaurants to outpace industry sales and unit growth for each of the past three years.”

The study, which examined bakery cafe purchasing behavior, attitudes and preferences of more than 1,500 consumers, also found consumers are driving growth in the segment by visiting bakery cafes in larger numbers and by becoming frequent customers once they do visit. According to the study, 71% of consumers now have visited a bakery cafe, up from 43% in 2008, and nearly three quarters of those consumers said they visit bakery cafe concepts at least once a month.

“Bakery cafe chains continue gaining market share in a zero-growth environment,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic. “More consumers are visiting these restaurants and are gaining familiarity, but nearly one in three consumers surveyed still haven’t been to a bakery cafe concept. Their most common reasons have to do with location and unfamiliarity. As more units open and as marketing efforts continue to boost awareness, there is little reason to think the segment will not continue to perform well.”

Other findings from the study included:

• A third of consumers (34%) strongly agreed they would visit bakery cafes more often for breakfast if menus offered a wider variety of breakfast items.

• Three in four consumers (75%) said the quality of service is very important when deciding which bakery cafe to visit, and about two-thirds (66%) consider the speed of service to be very important.

• At 12%, tortillas were identified as the most-frequently mentioned sandwich bread type for lunch and dinner sandwiches. Focaccia, positioned as a European-style artisan bread variety, ranked second (9%). Ciabatta, sourdough and pumpernickel all have increased significantly on bakery cafe menus since 2008, Technomic said.

• With approximately 7 in 10 consumers polled (69%) saying they visit and purchase food from the chain at least occasionally, Panera was the clear leader in the segment. Among Panera’s visitors, 69% said they go at least monthly.