More restaurant chains aspire to hit the big 1-0-0-0

The dream of almost every restaurant chain — to hit 1,000 units — is happening at warp speed in 2007.

Years can go by without a chain reaching that number. But at least five have in the past year or so. Sbarro and Papa Murphy's got there. So did Panda Express, as did Panera Bread pnra and WingStreet. Even plucky Johnny Rockets, under new ownership, just unveiled plans to multiply its 217 units to 1,000.

What's with 1,000? It took McDonald's mcd about 20 years to get there, Starbucks almost 25. Then there's Boston Market, which grew too fast and filed for bankruptcy protection shortly after passing 1,000 in 1998.

"It's a landmark. It's four digits instead of three," says Ron Paul, president of Technomic, a consulting firm. "It's a goal to join an elite class." But that class is growing faster than many would have predicted — particularly at a time when the $537 billion restaurant industry has suffered some bumps and bruises.

Hitting 1,000 restaurants shouts scale, says Mary Chapman, editor-in-chief at Chain Leader, a trade magazine. "It's a turning point from a large chain to a dominant chain."

Despite tough times in casual dining, fast-food and limited-service stores are in a faster growth period as private-equity money became available, says Chapman.

Some chains that have hit 1,000:

•Papa Murphy's. It's taken 23 years for the ready-to-bake pizza chain to reach 1,000 units.

"It means you're for real, and you can strut your stuff," says Mark Strickler, marketing chief. "It means you can move across the country."

The 30-state chain plans to add about 165 stores annually, he says.

•WingStreet. In just four years, the chicken-wing chain — inside Pizza Huts and owned by Yum — passed 1,000. In two years, it will pass 4,500, says Brian Niccol, marketing chief of both chains. "One thousand is the tipping point where you transition from regional to national player."

•Panda Express. The Asian fast-food chain, which began with one unit in 1983, will pass 1,000 in November, says CEO Tom Davin.

Although the chain is in 37 states, about half of its stores are in California, Nevada and Arizona.

When will it reach 2,000 stores? About five years, Davin projects.

•Sbarro. The Italian fast-food chain opened its 1,000th store in August in Istanbul. Sbarro plans to have 2,000 locations by 2011, with much of the growth international, says Anthony Missano, business development president.

•Panera Bread. The fast-casual chain passed 1,000 units in November, 25 years after the first.

"We're fearful of aspiring to large numbers," says Mike Kupstas, franchise chief. "It conjures up misconceptions because our whole thing is about the community."

When it opened No. 1,000 in Chicago last year, celebrants didn't cut a ribbon. They cut a baguette.