This last year has brought us some terrible chain restaurant trends, including serving up sodium-soaked "healthy" meals; shrinking dessert sizes and charging the same prices; peddling fancy cocktails with more ingredients than a hair-relaxing solution; and restaurants labeling everything "natural." But despite the obvious failures, 2012 also produced five trends that have some juice -- let's hope they stay hydrated in 2013.
Here's our list of five chain-restaurant trends that should continue in 2013 -- because we can't serve up big glasses of Hater-Aid all the time.
3. Health-friendly kid's meals.
For all the talk over the last few years about making healthier restaurant meals for kids, the idea got a massive boost from Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, and now we are seeing more lean meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and less emphasis on sugary drinks and snacks than ever before. Sure, the First Lady has taken plenty of flak from folks opposed to perceived "nanny state" politicking over what their kids are eating, but chain restaurants like McDonald's, Burger King, Chili's, Denny's, IHOP, Joe's Crab Shack, El Pollo Loco and Outback Steakhouse have made significant changes to the traditional triumvirate of chicken fingers/pizza/mac & cheese. These and other spots serving up nutritious eats for the kiddos have tapped into a trend that they shouldn't abandon even if the politics change, because even parents who don't have the healthiest diets still want better for their children.
2. Gently Thai-d up.
The vibrant, exotic and semi-familiar flavors of Thai cuisine have finally diffused into chain restaurants, and although the nature of chains is to dilute and Americanize, the bigger-picture benefit is keeping customers from boring, recycled meals while giving them gentle tastes until their palates can handle the full-on flavor spectrum of Thai food proper. All that is a fancy way of saying baby steps -- and the longer that Thai spices and ingredients are included in mainstream dishes, the easier it will be for the strong aromatics and spicy chiles to grow on customers. If the Thai fusion trend continues, then dried shrimp, green papaya, rice vinegar, sriracha, fermented soy beans and red curry will be familiar sights and flavors -- at full strength.
1. Calculated risky business.
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Sometimes taking risks -- calculated, of course -- can pay off big-time, and proof of that is the Doritos Locos taco from Taco Bell. The company took a risk that drive-thru diners would warm to the idea of eating taco innards stuffed inside of a cheesy-powdered shell -- with a color that does not exist anywhere in nature -- in the midst of all the buzz about locally-sourced, nutritious, farm-to-fork yada-hooey, but diners really, really have, with cheesy, greasy gusto. This taco yanked the Bell out of a serious sales slump, and Cool Ranch Doritos Locos tacos could keep Taco Bell beefy into 2014. Diners don't always appreciate batty food combinations, but they sure love this one.