Mark  Brandau of Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the annual Technomic Top 500 report found that 2009 was a brutal year for the industry’s largest concepts, with aggregate systemwide sales for the largest chains falling 0.8 percent. Upstarts, however, including Five Guys, Noodles & Company and Potbelly Sandwich Works, were able to post double-digit increases in sales.

Data compiled by the Chicago-based consulting firm revealed that the 500 largest restaurant chains posted aggregate annual sales of $230 billion, down almost $2 billion from a year earlier. In 2008, aggregate systemwide sales for the group had increased 3.4 percent. Many concepts halted expansion plans and closed underperforming locations, resulting in an anemic 0.3-percent increase in unit growth, compared with 1.8 percent growth in 2008.

“As the U.S. economy remained in a recession, restaurant operators continued to face a host of challenges, including cost pressures followed by declines in consumer dining demand,” Ron Paul, president of Technomic, said in a statement. “The data in this report clearly supports what we’ve been hearing in our consumer research surveys over the past year.”

Paul told attendees at the annual UCLA Extension Restaurant Industry Conference last week that growing sales in 2010 likely would remain difficult as unemployment and underemployment are expected to stay near current levels for the rest of the year. [Earlier coverage: Recovery in 2010? Maybe not]

Technomic also found that the country’s 500 largest chains performed better abroad than in the United States. International sales for the Top 500 brands grew 3.3 percent in 2009, and international unit expansion was 5.2 percent.

While the top 500 chains struggled as a whole in 2009, certain brands and industry segments bucked the trend with growth in sales and locations.

The 10 fastest growing chains with 2009 sales over $200 million

Ranked by largest percentage sales increase with concept name; 2009 U.S. systemwide sales; % sales increase
•Five Guys Burgers and Fries; $453 million; 50%
•Tim Hortons; $446 million; 23%
•Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar; $1,496 million; 22%
•Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich Shop; $602 million; 21%
•Wingstop; $307 million; 20%
•Noodles & Company; $230 million; 15%
•BJ’s Restaurants & Brewhouse; $430 million; 14%
•Chipotle Mexican Grill; $1,517 million; 14%
•Firehouse Subs; $206 million; 10%
•Potbelly Sandwich Works; $246 million; 10%

Source: Technomic Inc.

Read more: Nation’s Restaurant News