You’ll be ordering food with QR code menus long after the pandemic ends

Dining out at a restaurant used to be a break from busy routines — and technology. It was a faux pas to spend a meal staring at your phone. But with coronavirus continuing to spread across the U.S., dining at a restaurant is now a potentially risky decision. Plastic shields guard the host stand and your friendly waiter’s face is now half-covered by a mask. The solution to a more enjoyable and safer experience could be the very thing you tried to avoid when dining, however: Your phone.

QR codes are experiencing a comeback as a way to eliminate shared menus which could spread the virus between customers — and your dining experience may never be the same.

How QR code menus work

QR codes — which use a scannable design of black and white squares — have been in widespread use since the mid-2010s. The code, when scanned using your smartphone’s camera, will open a link, in this case to a restaurant’s menu page.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that bars and restaurants use disposable or digital menus to limit the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants seem to be taking this advice.

Whether it’s a simple laminated stand on tables or mobilizing an entire contactless ordering system, QR code menus have become the norm when dining at restaurants during the pandemic.

Scott Selman, head of marketing of Titan Hospitality Group, said the collection of restaurants in the D.C. area are currently using QR codes on table coasters. Selman said the group was already looking into touchless menu technology before the pandemic struck as a cost-cutting solution.

“People have been loving the ease of access,” Selman said. “For many of our patrons, it’s an experience they continue to talk about.”

A QR code opens a digital restaurant menu
Victoria Jones - PA Images / Getty Images

At another D.C. area restaurant, Espita, co-owner and general manager Josh Phillips is also using QR codes. His Mexican restaurant uses integrated technology called GoTab, which uses the codes to handle both menus and payment.

Phillips said it only took an afternoon to set up the system. So far, he’s had few complaints. In fact, Phillips said, some guests who initially disliked the QR codes came around to them by the end of their meal.

“[One guest] interacted with it and changed her tune to ‘I know I was hating on this QR code thing, but this is actually great. Why doesn’t everyone do this?’” Phillips said. “That’s a pattern I see repeatedly with the few people that have had complaints. By the end of the meal, they are always on board and think it is great.”

Marketers are quick to point out the additional benefits of QR code menus in addition to solving sanitization concerns.

“The question isn’t about having a QR code menu. The important question is what does the QR code do?” said Jack Serfass, CEO of food and beverage software company Uptown Network.

Digital menus using QR codes offer more flexibility, he said. A restaurant staffer could easily update the digital menu to reflect a sold-out dish or add an additional menu item. Some of the integrated technology even lets you analyze menu data.

QR code menus also let restaurant managers add more visual graphics, implement coupon codes, and can both reduce costs and waste since physical menus no longer need to be printed.

George Kern, art director at Printed Pixel who prints QR codes for clients, has seen an increase in business since the pandemic began.

“It’s not difficult at all to implement QR codes into your business,” Kern explained. “You can roll them out in various ways with very little of your time invested. How creative you get with them and what type of actions you have them perform is up to you.”

Why QR codes didn’t take off — until now

Unlike China, where QR codes are used for almost everything from cashless payments to tombstones, the U.S. has been much slower to adopt quick response technology.

At first, smartphone users needed a third-party app to scan or read QR codes. But updates by Apple and Google several years ago allow the codes to be read directly through your smartphone’s camera.

According to a study by Blue Bite, there was a 26% increase in the number of QR interactions from 2018 to 2019 in North American and European markets. Research firm Statista estimates that there will be about 11 million uses from households in the U.S. for 2020, compared to 9.76 million in 2018.

But that data doesn’t include the potential impact of COVID-19 on accelerating the implementation of this technology.

There are drawbacks, however. Those over 65 are less likely to have a smartphone with QR code scanning capabilities. Even if they do, they might not know how to use them.

Tea Ivanovic of D.C.-based Immigrant Food, which has implemented QR codes in the restaurant since November 2019, notes that those over 50 prefer to order directly from the staff.

Another drawback of QR code menus is that they require access to the internet. The landing page for the QR code also needs to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and easily translated.

A QR code on a menu
A QR code on the menu of Stone’s Public House restaurant in Massachusetts. Paul Squire

Security can also pose a problem. Since you can link just about anything — like a URL or a PDF file — to a QR code, users need to make sure you trust the source of the code.

Kern said someone can easily reprint a code over an existing piece of marketing material, which could link to “malicious websites, phishing attempts, malware downloads, and ransomware.”

He urged restaurant patrons to be cautious of the source.

“This threat is nothing new, but with increased use, [and] because of the current situation … [you might not be] giving a second thought to what you just scanned,” he said. Using a branded QR code with the company’s logo would be an easy fix to make it harder for bad actors to hijack restaurants’ QR codes.

Will QR code menus survive the pandemic?

QR codes may be exploding in popularity now that customers and business owners are concerned about sanitation. But will they still be popular once the threat of coronavirus has passed?

Restaurant owners and experts told Digital Trends the touchless menu seems like it’s here to stay.

Serfass predicts that using smartphones will become part of your everyday dining experience.

“I don’t think paper menus are coming back,” he said. “Post-pandemic, I think we will see more tablet menus with guests having a choice of a sanitized tablet or their phone.”

Serfass said QR codes may even be replaced or supplemented with embedded NFC chips, which would allow you to wave your smartphone near a candle, for example, and immediately pull up a menu.

As for the future use of QR Codes, Espita owner Phillips said, “We’ll evaluate our choices when the vaccine arrives, but for now, it makes operating the restaurant so easy. For the moment, we are loving it.”

Selman also said that the Titan Hospitality Group will continue to use the QR technology it has invested in. The group could even expand the use of QR code menus to events too, he said.

“We know that continuing to show our guests long into the future that we are concerned first about their health and safety will be critical to keeping our doors open,” Selman said.

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