For the recurring series, That’s Debatable, we tackle a controversial topic of the day and present two fiery arguments, one in favor and the other categorically opposed. The previous episodes of the series are here.
WHEN THE FOOD WRITER Allyson Reedy ventured into her first restaurant after the lockdown was lifted in June 2020, the Broomfield, Colorado resident found a QR code – one of those graphics that looks like a crossword the size of a postage stamp – stuck on the table in place of a menu. Like many restaurants, Tangerine, a brunch spot near Lafayette, has switched to QR menus to help customers keep their germs to themselves in the era of the pandemic. When a smartphone camera targets a restaurant code, a menu appears in the phone’s browser. Half of all full-service restaurants have changed since March 2020, according to a National Restaurant Association survey.
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The laminated QR code that Ms Reedy encountered that day, however, gave off a shine that made it difficult to accurately read her phone’s camera, she said. Still, she found the Romance experience. “Like this temporary Covid thing that would pass in a few months,” she said, adding: “Of course we now know how it happened.” Many restaurateurs are still clinging to the technical touch, while many places, like Tangerine, have removed their QR code menus. Is this the right move? Here, patrons and industry insiders debate.
No, QR code menus are the high-tech innovation that their paper cousins were waiting for.
“I love myself some QR codes,” said Melissa Colebank. Getting around the unappetizing yuck factor of shared menus appeals to the Denver-based government customer support manager. And she certainly doesn’t fail to squint at a little menu text in a dimly lit restaurant. “If it’s a … romantic restaurant [with a paper menu], I’m like ‘I need my readers!’ but I don’t even have readers. (With a virtual version, she only has to zoom in.) Josh Phillips, the founder and president of Destination Unknown Restaurants in Washington, DC, which opened modern Mexican spot Destino in early December, said the QR codes were an absolute savior in the early pandemic. “They are probably the main reason our business has survived. Mr. Phillips has retained QR-coded menus at two of his four restaurants, in part because they save the considerable time waiters once spent entering orders into their serving system. (At some establishments, including those in the Unknown Destination group, customers can place their orders directly on the restaurant’s website. The waiters seem to only fill the glasses with water and bring the food to the table.)
Austin, TX, Uchi sushi restaurant also stuck to the QR code menus. Jack Yoss, culinary vice president of Uchi’s parent company, Hai Hospitality, said being able to edit menus with a tap is a godsend in a place that can serve 40-50 types of nigiri alone on a given night. “It’s updated up to the minute,” Mr. Yoss said. This means waiters will never have to hear their customers moaning when the Tasmanian Sea Trout is already depleted again. Plus, IRL menus can be as heavy as the absurdly oversized collapsible versions of Café Tropical, the local eatery in ‘Schitt’s Creek’.
Despite their reductive appearance, QR code menus don’t have to be a fully clinical experience. When the pandemic fell, Mr Phillips quickly hired a photographer to create a digital menu generously populated with photos. In his Ghostburger restaurant, plans of dishes like ruched fries sprinkled with white cheddar and grated rib eye make food more appealing than textual entrees on many pre-pandemic menus. “It’s not just a cell phone photo, it’s artfully plastered, beautifully photographed,” Mr. Phillips said of the stylized images.
Yes, battery operated menus ain’t the reason we go out to eat
Even at the height of the pandemic, Jason Berry did not implement what he called the “four-inch menu …”, referring to the size of a phone screen, opting instead for paper versions. 11 x 17 in disinfectable plastic sleeves. “QR codes are destroying the customer experience,” said the co-founder and director of Knead Hospitality + Design in Washington, DC. “It becomes this electronic menu board like you are in a McDonald’s,
know what to order.
“I’m part of the ‘paper menu’ team,” said food writer Allyson Reedy, who noticed that about half of the restaurants she covered since the start of the pandemic have switched to QR codes.
Virtual versions often fail to load, leaving her “like an idiot,” she said, when she has to ask the server to help her persuade one to appear on her phone. “And God forbid, you have an old iPhone that dies 20 minutes after being fully charged and you can’t even read the menu.”
And unlike paper menus, which can be another opportunity to showcase an establishment’s aesthetic, QR codes themselves “just sit on the table,” said Amy Morris, founder of the New York-based hotel design firm Morris Project. “[The QR code] looks like a piece of tech so it never really speaks to the personality of the restaurant.
Plus, you can inevitably take a peek at incoming texts and emails while checking out what you want to order for your next round of cocktails. “And then you’re completely distracted from the people and the conversation at the table,” Ms. Morris said. If the characters in “Schitt’s Creek” used their phones to choose between brisket and lasagna, would they have the same level of repartee? Probably not, reviews of the QR code could attest. As Mr. Berry said, “People don’t go to our restaurants to be alone. They don’t go to our restaurants to parade.
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