Restaurants might be eager to jump on the bandwagon, but they should first consider the true cost of digital menus.
As we peer through the seemingly endless haze of the pandemic and strain to see what is on the other side, a recurring cast of characters spring up to tell us what is to come. But unlike the lead in Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” these prophets have not returned from the bright land beyond to tell us the truths of what they have seen—although their confident tone would suggest otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, many of these fortune tellers have something to sell. The most recent of these visionaries are those who have declared that QR codes are here to stay. Leaders in the online ordering and pay-by-phone business offer statistics to prove that the technology has been fully embraced and will continue to outlive the pandemic as the norm for restaurants. Operators who have fully leaned into QR code integration celebrate the news, broadcasting to investors that the technological investments and the pivots to less employee-reliant labor models were prudent, if not prescient, moves.
I am unsure of what comes next. The past few years have demonstrated that the ground can shift in unexpected ways. However, I do retain my 2019 era skepticism toward the broad mandates that outline what restaurants should do or where the restaurant industry is going. Will QR codes become (or remain) integral and “normal” for every business that monetizes food and drink? Will your local date-night spot be as QR code-reliant as your fast-food guilty pleasure?
In any case, the numbers are clear. Customers have used QR technology to order and pay at restaurants in volumes never seen before. However, they also own and wear many more masks. Are we, perhaps, conflating necessity with enjoyment? There are examples aplenty of hard-corner turns we have made as a society and as restaurateurs to survive 2020 and 2021. But, we have to admit that many of those “necessary” moves have already aged out, and others will follow when the masks come off. After all, whether or not you determined it a good investment at the time, you must hope that some creative innovator in 2022 comes up with a reason to buy all this excess plexiglass.
As with other tools and innovations, QR codes should, in my opinion, be viewed through the fundamental lens that asks: What are you selling?
If your product is fast food, then frictionless convenience shares its throne with consistency. Tech-enabled ordering, payment, and pickup make a world of sense.
If your product is an immersive experience—or the facilitation of relationships—QR code usage may turn out to be counterproductive.
Prior to the pandemic, a few bold restaurants, like Marco Canora’s Hearth in New York City, invited guests to stow their cell phones in wooden boxes during dinner. This unusual request came with good reason. Every “win” from guests posting food pictures on Instagram was counteracted by time lost from a unique and convivial experience. Research has regularly fleshed out this phenomenon, showing that a cell phone placed on a table reduces people’s ability to engage with and hear each other. Anecdotally, we have all seen our companions—or ourselves—order from a phone and then detour instinctively to email, social media, or text messages before reawakening to present surroundings. Like reacting to a yawn, we return to our handheld lives if we see our dining companions still similarly engaged on their own devices.
If you are an operator who puts little stock in on-site dining, recognize that customers on their phones often do not hear music, notice artwork and architectural details, nor care if the bartender is smiling or not. As such, there may be savings to be made beyond the cost of printing physical menus.
But if you are a restaurateur who cares about the dining experience, recognize that guests seeking restoration and reprieve from the demands of the world might be unfairly trapped if you encourage the use of technological narcotics as soon as they sit down.
At Barcelona Wine Bar, we heard early on the frequent complaints from guests about QR fatigue and pivoted back to paper menus. Sales increased as each of our restaurants returned to in-person service. More importantly, so did guest satisfaction. We have recently returned thick, leather-bound wine lists to our tables for guests to leaf through instead of asking them to do more mindless online scrolling. QR ordering and payment will remain an option out of courtesy to those who feel safer or find it more convenient. However, as hosts, we would much prefer the opportunity for a final check-in and good-bye.
Some wise observers have noted that the pandemic has not changed the evolution of most companies, but rather hastened them down their chosen paths. Certain sellers of food and drink will speed down the road of transformation into vending machines and kiosks. All the more power to them. However, it will be those of us running restaurants, cultivating relationships, and creating experiences, who will want to hire your newly “unneeded” staff and welcome your experience-starved guests.
Adam Halberg is the CEO of Barcelona Wine Bar, a growing restaurant concept specializing in authentic tapas and other Spanish fare. Over the past 14 years, Halberg has held a number of positions at the company, including culinary director, senior vice president of operations, and most recently, president.