CHICAGO — Visits to fast causal restaurants such as Chipotle, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Noodles & Co. and Panera grew 17% during the past three years while the rest of the restaurant industry saw significant traffic declines, according to The NPD Group. In addition, consumer demand for fast casual offerings exceeded the unit growth of leading fast-food chains.

“Fast casual restaurants have done an excellent job of satisfying their customers’ needs for quality and service and have built strong customer loyalty as a result,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. “The attributes that define the fast casual concept ? fresh, food quality, and service ? are the reasons why customers give them their highest satisfaction ratings.”

Visits to fast casual chains were up 6% for the year ended in December 2010, which compared with a 1% decline in the total restaurant industry, NPD found. Since 2007, fast casual units available expanded 12% and traffic has grown by 17%.

“Fast casual concepts are in an excellent position for growth,” Ms. Riggs said. “We’ve seen other fast-food customers trading up to fast casual and full-service customers trading down to fast casual. In addition, with imitation being the highest form of flattery, we’re now seeing other segments of the industry duplicate what has made fast casual concepts so successful.”