At this point, you’ve certainly seen them — black-and-white squares composed of tetris-like patterns of smaller black-and-white squares. And since the pandemic started last year, you’ve also likely used one, especially if you’ve visited a restaurant. QR codes have been around since the mid-1990s, when a Japanese auto plant created them to maintain efficiency and accuracy on the car assembly line.
With the click of a camera phone, QR codes instantly display a restaurant menu. They can also facilitate contactless ordering and payment, manage an online waitlist, solicit diner feedback, and more, minimizing the time restaurant staff spends with diners. From fine dining restaurants to fast casual chains, QR codes have been a staple of COVID safety protocols. Even the CDC recommends them. Though there is no available data showing exactly what percentage of restaurants have embraced the QR code in recent months, anecdotal evidence suggests they are now ubiquitous, and Peter D. Nyheim, author of the industry textbook, Technology Strategies for the Hospitality Industry, praises them for their “robust” storage capabilities “hundreds of times greater than barcodes.”
For these reasons, after having largely been forgotten, QR codes have risen from the dead to become omnipresent in dining rooms today — and in years to come, industry experts say.
From tech obscurity to restaurant staple
Chef Jonah Miller implemented QR codes last year in his New York City Spanish restaurant Huertas “for safety’s sake,” he says. Huertas still sent a server to take your order, but displaying the menu via QR code kept contact to a minimum. Though the restaurant is currently “hibernating,” Miller has been thinking a lot about how to balance technology and tradition when Huertas moves toward reopening hopefully next month. He suspects QR codes will play a role in restaurants from now on, even if the way they’ll be used turns out to be different in the post-pandemic world.
QR codes haven’t always been a restaurant thing. In the 2010s, they were more likely to pop up on product packaging, like cereal boxes, or in your junk mail. Some restaurants tried to find ways to incorporate them even back then, but diners just didn’t want to use them; there was no pressing need. Slowly, QR codes faded from sight and most people considered them a failure
Enter a global pandemic, when in the early phases, touching anything outside your home seemed to pose life-or-death danger. Suddenly, this technology without a cause had a salient reason for existing. “Touchpoint reduction is now the key in many industries for health reasons. I imagine that something else will come along to further QR technology in the future, but for now its usage is increasing, including in the restaurant industry,” Nyheim says. “You know when you last wiped down your own phone.”
For that reason, restaurants embraced them for their ability to limit contact between diner and restaurant staff and eliminate printed menus, which were, early in the pandemic especially, considered potential fatal vectors of disease. (They’re not. Now we know surfaces pose much less risk than previously thought.)
The big difference between 2021 and back in the 2010s? Diners are onboard. According to a survey published in QSR Web, 45 percent of people prefer to review the menu, order, and pay through their phone than interact with servers during the pandemic.
In January, OpenTable added QR codes to give restaurants an easy, no-cost way to incorporate the new tech into their business. When restaurants make updates to information on their OpenTable profiles, such as the menu and operating hours, the evergreen QR code automatically updates. There’s no fee for scanning QR codes through OpenTable, and restaurants can generate as many codes as they want. The QR code is, at least for the moment, very much back in play.
What comes next for the QR code
Looking ahead, it’s difficult to say what pandemic era practices will live on after the crisis. But QSR Web reports that 40 percent of Americans want to continue using contactless tools like QR codes even after the pandemic ends. The survey cited by QSR Web also notes that for 44 percent of diners, convenience and ease are the most important factors when ordering and paying for food.
Though all this applies more directly to counter service or fast casual restaurants than fine dining ones, QR codes will likely continue to maintain a foothold there, too. Regardless of the setting, digital menus save money, for one thing. Both disposal and reusable menus need to be reprinted often, which can be a considerable expense. As restaurants rebound, every penny of the operating budget counts.
Miller estimates that shifting away from printed menus has saved his restaurant $3,000 in the past year. “And that doesn’t account for the labor savings,” he says. “Restaurant people aren’t necessarily experts in computer software and graphic design. It can be time consuming to revamp and reprint a menu.”
Digital menus are also faster and easier to update. You aren’t hemmed in by the square inches of a sheet of paper, and Miller notes that a restaurant can have its operating system automatically remove dishes from the menu as soon as they sell out, sparing diners the disappointment of wanting a dish or bottle of wine that’s no longer available, a win-win for restaurant and diner alike.
Restaurateurs are slowly beginning to see the untapped potential in QR codes beyond simple menu viewing. For example, a QR code makes it easy to add food photos to a menu, a strategy that may increase sales of a dish, according to research. “Especially during the pandemic, when you can’t peek at the dish on the table right next to you, or your server isn’t spending the time to really paint a picture of a dish, a photo can provide an opportunity,” Miller says. Adding photos may not be a good fit for every restaurant (fine dining restaurants are generally loath to do it), but digital menus make it a viable option for anyone who may want to experiment. “We’re all used to looking at food photos on our phones,” he adds.
Nonetheless, Miller predicts that when diners visit fine dining restaurants, they’ll expect to be handed a physical menu for a long time to come. Reviewing a printed menu with a cocktail in hand is part of the ritual of dining out for many. “I do think that despite all the advantages, when it feels completely safe, we’ll go back to a printed menu at Huertas,” Miller says. He thinks diners will see that paper menu as a comforting signal that things are getting back to normal.
But that doesn’t mean he believes the QR code will completely go away, even at upscale restaurants. “We’ll see it become more prevalent in different areas,” he says. “A paper menu can be constraining.” There’s always extra information you want to add but don’t have the space for, he points out. QR codes could make it simple for diners to access off-menu items or special-diet menus, such as vegan or gluten free, with their phones. Or he envisions a world in which restaurants hand diners a physical version of the by-the-glass wine list, but use a QR code for the entire bottle menu. “Believe me, it’s a drag to print the whole wine list,” he says.
Like all technologies, the QR code in restaurants will evolve as times change. But whether it’s used to facilitate transactions from ordering to payment or just for those deep cuts on the wine list, these black-and-white squares are not just back. This time, the QR code is here to stay.