HUFFINGTON POST
05/18/2011 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2011

Fast-Casual Restaurant Industry Ripe For 'Asian Invasion'

Although Sudhir Kandula did not win the first season of America's Next Great restaurant, he did reach the finale, and impressed the judges with his mission to bring fast-casual Indian food to American consumers. Kandula might be onto something big, as Asian eateries throughout the United States are growing both in concept and units.

With the upcoming opening of Chipotle's new eatery, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, fast-casual companies are increasing focus on less familiar ingredients.

Currently, among the top 500 chains in the U.S., only about 1.7% of sales are from Asian chains, but last year, according to Technomic, fast-food and fast-casual Asian chain sales among the top 500 grew 9.3%.

Yum Brands, the umbrella company of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut is investing more heavily in Little Sheep, a hot-pot style chain currently in China and is hoping to bring the brand to a wider audience. Panda Express and Pei Wei are also poised to expand, with Panda Express hoping to add another 1,000 nationwide outposts by 2015 and Pei Wei opening 10 to 12 additional units in 2011.

Even non-Asian restaurants are embracing more flavors from the Eastern hemisphere, as chains are increasingly including Asian-influenced items and ingredients: McDonald's has reintroduced its Asian salad and even TGI Friday's now serves Japanese Hibachi skewers.