Take a seat in a restaurant since March 2020 and chances are you’ve been invited to aim your phone camera on a square black-and-white Rorschach test known as a QR code — short for “quick response” — to make the menu appear on your screen.
What a clever idea, especially in the early days of the pandemic. QR menus, typically providing a link to a restaurant’s website, are touchless, limiting the spread of viruses and bacteria among staff and customers. They are clean. (As clean as your phone is!)
But as focus on the coronavirus’ spread has shifted from surfaces to airborne situations, printed menus are coming back.
You can call QR codes tacky or out of place. You may dislike them immensely. But like pandemic-era developments such as the ghost kitchen, the QR menu won’t be going away from every restaurant anytime soon.
The downside of QR menus
If you’re trying to remain engaged in conversation — or for that matter, stay in a happy relationship — a phone is distracting. QR menus inherently bring one’s phone into play.
“It’s like looking at a bus schedule,” said Joseph “Joppy” Ferrone, director of operations for Silk City, North Third, and Franky Bradley’s. He also thinks it’s “presumptuous to force all guests to use a smartphone.”
When perusing a menu, “you’re comparing and you’re going to miss some of the beautiful nuances,” Ferrone said. “You’re going to miss that if you have scroll back and forth. It’s about design. It’s about accessibility. And it’s about being true to what a restaurant is. I think it gets lost on a small screen. Part of our job in hospitality is to be hospitable.”
Jill Weber, whose restaurants include Rex at the Royal, Jet Wine Bar, Cafe Ynez, and Sor Ynez, thinks QR menus “immediately break the immersive experience by drawing customers out of the moment and asking them to stare at an individual phone.”
She said they detractfrom the meal-building aspect of looking at the menu. “If I’m at Rex, I want to say, ‘Ooh, seafood tower!’ and look at the sparkling wines at the same time, and then see that I’ll probably get an order of fries with that,” she said. “The QR experience just makes that whole view more cumbersome.”
The upside of QR menus
Romance of printed menus aside, technology allows restaurateurs to integrate their point-of-sale systems into different aspects of their operation.
A year ago, when indoor dining was not allowed in Philadelphia, Chad Rosenthal at The Lucky Well struck a deal with Love City Brewing across the street. Patrons at Love City’s outdoor setup could scan Lucky Well’s QR code on their table. A couple of taps later, their orders were paid and being prepared in Lucky Well’s kitchen. A food runner delivered everything to the table. In an era when staffing is at a premium, QR codes can minimize the need for waiters.
Mary Cullom and Hamdy Khalil, partners in Arpeggio BYOB in Spring House, Montgomery County, went to QR codes immediately after their pandemic reopening. Arpeggio’s expansive menu covers the Mediterranean — dozens of pizzas, appetizers, kebabs, chicken and veal dishes. The benefits, she said, go far beyond the $10,000 a year they save in printing menus.
QR menus are precise. “It’s eliminated confusion,” Cullom said. The restaurant sells two “plain” pizzas — one, a New York-style on the menu as a “plain pizza,” and the other, a margherita. After Cullom and Khalil spent months photographing all the pizzas, and the dozens of other dishes, customers know exactly what they’re ordering. The menu is online, as well, for the restaurant’s takeout and pickup customers.
Waiters still take the order at the table.
The menus also allow for price changes in real time. Supply-chain issues have created bizarre fluctuations from day to day. “We never know some [ingredient] prices until we see the invoice,” Cullom said. And if you always order the filet and you don’t see it on the menu one night, that could mean that it’s out of stock. Dishes can be 86ed on the fly, which manages expectations.
For customers who resist QR codes or don’t have a phone, Arpeggio offers iPads, which have a larger screen. For those adamantly against technology, staff hands over printed menus but they have fewer options.
It would be easy for Cullom and Khalil to allow customers to order via the QR menus directly to the kitchen, much as online ordering works through a delivery app. Such a move would bypass waiters.
“But that lacks the personal touch,” Cullom said. “That’s what hospitality is.”