Two different viewpoints about the merits of QR code menus

Altho I understand the cost savings and perceived health benefits to scanning for a menu rather than handling a piece of paper, I must agree that we are not yet at the point where everyone has and knows how to use a smartphone. Until they are more widely owned and used, restaurants must continue to offer a paper alternative.

Opinion  QR code menus are the death of civilization

By Helaine Olen

June 15, 2022 at 11:16 a.m. EDT

The coronavirus pandemic saw a number of changes in how we live, in ways big and small. Some were welcome: flexibility about remote work, say, or cocktails to go. But here’s one adaptation that can’t fall by the wayside fast enough: the now-commonplace QR code menus offered in place of the paper version in millions of American restaurants. They are unnecessary, anti-social, discriminatory and unpopular. They fully degrade the experience of dining out.

If you don’t know what a restaurant QR code is, I envy you. It’s the black-and-white square code you find on a placard at the table when you are seated, asking you to scan it with your phone’s camera for a link to the establishment’s offerings. Offered up as a bit of hygiene when restaurants reopened after the shutdowns of the early pandemic period, online QR code menus are unnecessary, since the coronavirus is (we now know) an almost entirely airborne pathogen. But all too many dining establishments continue to use them.

A physical menu sets the stage. It highlights the fact that this is a special occasion, even if it’s simply a quick bite at a local diner. The menu signifies that it’s time to take a break in a busy day, that this meal is something separate from the normal course of events. It also pushes us to interact with others. We share menus. We point to things; we ask the wait staff questions about the meal and what they particularly like. It’s like opening a program at a theater, for a show you and your companions are about to experience together.

Whipping out a phone to check the menu, on the other hand, is hardly conducive to setting a mood, unless you want to dine in the metaverse. Smartphones are endlessly distracting, and it takes discipline to put them away after checking a menu, a bit of self-control many can’t always muster. (Guilty.) It’s all too easy to rationalize checking just one email, sending just one tweet, taking just one glance at Instagram. (Guilty again.) We already spend almost five hours a day staring at our smartphone screens. Do we really need a prompt to spend even more time in our electronic silos?

In fact, the QR code, like much technological, er, progress of the past decade, is designed to reduce or remove contact with others. Some actually think this makes eating out more enjoyable — or at least cuts down on labor. As one business-to-business site promoting QR codes’ use puts it, “The customer no longer needs to share menus or perform interactions with waiters or waitresses,” adding, “it boosts convenience massively, making dining a more pleasurable experience for everybody.”

Uh, no. A recent tweet asking “what do we, as a culture, have to do to kill QR code menus” received more than 300,000 likes. And a poll conducted late last year by the National Restaurant Association found two-thirds of all adults preferred paper menus over the online version. Baby boomers in particular revile the use of QR code menus, with 4 out of 5 preferring a physical one. That might be because, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 40 percent of people over the age of 65 still lack a smartphone. So do fully one-quarter of those earning less than $30,000 annually. A QR code menu is tantamount to telling the elderly and poor their business isn’t wanted. Nice!

Robert Gebelhoff: QR code menus are good. No, seriously.

Yes, QR code menus have their defenders. I actually know a few of these benighted souls. Some of them are even my colleagues. They say QR code menus are healthier, and better for the environment. But let’s get real. Germy? If you’re that concerned, ask the restaurant management about paid sick leave policies for the staff, something that’s bound to be much more effective at cutting contagion. And no one who writes for a print newspaper has any business complaining about the waste of paper in printing a menu.

So why do QR code menus persist? They do offer short-term business advantages. By placing the menu online, restaurateurs can not only skip the step of bringing you a menu, but they can also adjust their offerings on the fly. That might be particularly useful at this moment of shortages and inflation, allowing managers to quickly account for supply chain issues and raise prices to cover increased costs.

But that flexibility comes with major downsides for the restaurant patron. Another one: Some industry consultants argue that QR code menus will ultimately allow for greater profits in the form of Uber-like price surging, permitting restaurants to charge more on a busy Friday than on a rainy Tuesday night. “Eventually what you’ll look at is a menu that changes, and eventually, pricing that changes throughout the day,” one restaurant industry veteran helpfully explained to Eater last year.

Is this the future you want? Staring at your phone, ignoring your companions, while your pasta surges to 200 percent of its normal price? I don’t think so. It’s time to end the reign of the QR code menu. This is one technological advance we all could do without.

Opinion  QR code menus are good. No, seriously.

By Robert Gebelhoff, Assistant editor and Opinions contributor

June 15, 2022 at 11:16 a.m. EDT

I’m not exactly what you would call a technophile. It took me years to stop printing my airline boarding passes, much to my wife’s chagrin.

But I am willing to acknowledge when technology makes life a little more convenient, even at the expense of long-established routines. And so just as I’ve (finally) accepted mobile boarding passes, I have come to embrace QR codes for restaurant menus.

I know this might be an unpopular opinion. There are some who see those ugly little squares not just as a minor annoyance but as a threat to the Restaurant Experience.

I won’t dismiss these feelings as simply complaints from, well, customers of a certain generation. Because, again, I get it; I understand the appeal of holding a menu in my hands. (I particularly enjoy quietly judging a restaurant’s choice of typography.) This is what we expect from dining out. It is a ritual. A comforting formality.

The same could be said of printed boarding passes. For whatever reason, I felt more comfortable with a piece of paper in my hands guaranteeing that I can board my flight. It was simply part of my airport routine — until I tried the mobile version. And now I’ll never go back.

For those who are skeptical of QR code menus, answer this question: What actual advantages do physical menus have over mobile versions? Physical menus are often bulky and take up space on the table. They must be replaced when changed or overused. Waiters must run around handing them out, collecting them, and then handing them out again if customers want to see dessert options.

Online menus, by contrast, are easy to access and update. They give restaurants more flexibility to experiment with food options. I once went to a restaurant that let customers take a personality quiz on their phones to determine what cocktail best suited them. Was it necessary or based in any sort of science? Absolutely not. But it was fun!

And for those who argue mobile phones make dining out less accessible for older patrons, I say au contraire: Those who have trouble reading paper menus in dimly lit restaurants would likely appreciate online versions, which allow them to zoom in on the text. They can also adjust their phone’s brightness to make them easier to view.

What’s the downside? More distracting phones at the table? Maybe. But customers could always, you know, put their phones away after using them.

Helaine Olen: QR code menus are the death of civilization

I’m not advocating totally getting rid of physical menus. There will, of course, be some people who don’t have smartphones or can’t get the QR code to work. And perhaps there will be the occasional grumpy customer who simply refuses to look at any menu not made out of some sort of fiber. For those folks, keep a couple of copies in the back.

For everyone else, make QR code menus the default option. It’s perfectly reasonable as a customer experience, and I expect with time will become a norm, just as reading news on a phone is quickly displacing print news. Is that a bad thing? No, it’s a response to changing customer preferences.

I suspect some of the resistance to QR codes in restaurants is due to lingering resentment over silly coronavirus policies. Which is fair. Restaurants leaned into online menus during the pandemic to limit the number of shared surfaces that might transmit the virus. But surface transmission was never really a thing; the coronavirus is primarily spread through the air. So why keep online menus in place now? Don’t we want to get back to the way things were?

I hope not. Or at least, not entirely. There are plenty of good innovations and changes in behavior from the pandemic that we should maintain. More hand-washing. A greater emphasis on staying home when sick. More attention to ventilation. All of these are positive things.

So is greater access to telemedicine. More remote working and less commuting. And, yes, QR codes for menus.

I won’t be heartbroken if I’m wrong and restaurants decide, in the end, that QR codes are just not worth the trouble. But if they do fade with the pandemic, I hope it’s for a better reason than that people just don’t like change. Weigh all the pros and cons, and QR code menus are clearly a change for the better.

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