Customers Reject a Pandemic-Era Restaurant Staple

Eateries are ditching QR code menus
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 26, 2023 12:11 PM CDT
Updated May 28, 2023 12:10 PM CDT
Restaurants Are Ditching QR Code Menus
A customer at CraftWay Kitchen restaurant in Plano, Texas, scans a QR code using his smartphone that's on a placard held by an employee on May 1, 2020.   (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

We all got used to an avalanche of changes in our daily routines during the peak of COVID, including ways in which to safely dine in public once lockdowns were lifted. Now, one of those eating-out protocols is falling by the wayside: Restaurants are starting to ditch scannable QR codes, which customers use to access menus. As the pandemic progressed, hand-held menus were increasingly swapped out for what's been called a "bar code on steroids"—a "quick response" code shaped like a square that features encoded data. Restaurant customers can simply hold their smartphone camera over the QR code, which is often found adhered to the table or laminated and placed in napkin holders.

The code then calls up the restaurant's menu online, a contactless way to view options and even place orders and pay. The New York Times notes that, at one time, this invention "seemed like the way of the future." Now, however, the paper reports that restaurants are reverting back to paper menus, and location-specific QR codes are idling. A rep for MustHaveMenus, which provides the codes for eateries, says that from April 1 to May 16, the number of scans fell about 27%, compared to the same period in 2022.

So why the sudden rejection of what should be an easy, convenient way to order and pay? "They are almost universally disliked," Kristen Hawley, creator of the "Expedite" restaurant newsletter tells the Times of the codes. The paper cites etiquette—we've all been trained it's rude to have our phones out at the table—and the decidedly unromantic feel of gazing at a screen's harsh light during a date. "A QR code has no soul," the owner of one Queens bar says. One respondent to an Axios survey in the Twin Cities area noted QR codes can also be challenging for older folks: "Have you ever tried bringing your grandmother to a restaurant and having her order off of an iPhone menu?"

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Meanwhile, an overview in the Guardian notes some people might miss the "tactile comfort of a paper menu," or "want to talk through their options with a flesh-and-blood waiter." Speaking of waiters, they don't love the codes, either. "There's something a little bit dehumanizing about it," one Chicago waiter tells the Times. Where the QR codes still see decent use: beer gardens, casual dining establishments, and cafes, where customers often want expedited ordering, Hawley says. And many seem to still appreciate using the codes if there's a language barrier, or to settle their bills at the end of the meal. Convenience in those cases "is number one," says the owner of a Brooklyn bar. (More restaurants stories.)

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