QR code menu, a temporary inconvenience or the future of dining?

Published December 17, 2021

QR code menus: A temporary inconvenience or the future of dining?


It seems like QR codes have finally found their place in the restaurant industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Introduced as a means of limiting contact and minimizing the spread of the virus, QR code menus are now commonplace in restaurants across the globe. For many restaurant owners, QR codes are here to stay—and the opportunities they offer go beyond contactless menus. 

QR codes have been around for a while. Prior to the pandemic, however, they had long been pronounced gone. Around ten years ago, they were briefly viewed as a promising bit of tech and went through something of a renaissance period. In June 2011, 14 million Americans scanned QR codes on their mobile devices. Yet even then, only a marginal percentage of scans happened in restaurant settings (7.6%, to be exact). 

Considering the post-pandemic restaurant experience, many argue that QR codes provide an opportunity for innovation and an enhanced dining experience beyond the simple online menu diners became used to in the past year and a half.

QR codes enhance the dining experience beyond menus


QR codes can do much more than provide guests with a digital version of a printed menu. They make the menu itself more dynamic and they activate different opportunities for restaurants to streamline their processes, collect valuable information and give diners a richer experience. 

Dynamic menus

Unlike traditional paper menus, digital menus are much easier to alter on the fly. Dishes can be instantly removed once they sell out, or if they can’t be offered due to unavailability of ingredients. This saves waitstaff the return trip to the table to apologetically explain that another diner got the last cobb salad. Digital menus also give chefs more flexibility to adapt their offerings to spotlight seasonal ingredients or test-launch new dishes.

For Richard Mendis, CSO at BrandMuscle, this is a big-time money saver. In an interview with Bloomberg, he said, “In the print world, it would be very expensive and cumbersome to keep printing your menus [...] In the digital world, it’s a couple of clicks and you’re done.”

Related: QR code technology: How a failed innovation became an essential technology

Online ordering

An online menu also gives diners the option to order remotely by integrating with the restaurant’s ordering system. According to the National Restaurant Association, a quarter of restaurant operators across all sectors added the functionality of in-app or online ordering during the pandemic. This was primarily done to promote social distancing and reduce the amount of time waiters spent at tables.

The verdict is still out on online ordering and preferences vary generationally

According to the National Restaurant Association’s consumer survey, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers prefer traditional table service (69% and 67%, respectively). On the other hand, 55% of Gen Z adults prefer electronic alternatives. 

QR code payments

Digital payments using QR codes also became part of the touchless experience during the pandemic. They allowed guests to pay their bills through their devices without having to exchange cash or use credit cards.

The National Restaurant Association found that 40% of operators implemented contactless or mobile payments as an added safety measure. For 21% of restaurant guests, the availability of these options was a contributing factor when choosing where to dine. Tom Sharon, co-founder of Cheqout, told the New York Times that using QR code menus with the added functionality of ordering and payments could reduce restaurant labor costs by up to 50%. 

QR code payments are also gaining traction outside the U.S. In Japan, a unified QR code called JPQR launched in 2019 in response to the high number of QR code service providers operating throughout the country. According to a January 2021 survey, QR codes were the preferred payment method for 33.3% of respondents.. 

In Argentina, 17% of adults used QR code payments in 2020, compared to just 3% in 2018. According to the report by Accenture, this is expected to increase up to 24% by 2022.

Related: Is traditional service on its way out in hospitality?

Loyalty program integration

Loyalty programs and reward schemes can also be integrated into QR code menu usage, particularly when linked with digital payments. Loyalty points can be added directly from within an app linked to a diner’s account. 

Restaurants can also integrate reward schemes into the dining experience by adding a call–to-action (CTA) to the landing page that diners can access upon scanning the QR code. They can then earn discounts on their orders or enter giveaways by signing up for a newsletter, downloading an app, following the establishment on social media or filling out a feedback survey.  

The National Restaurant Association found that a third of off-premise customers would consider the availability of loyalty programs when choosing which restaurants to order from. 

Data collection

QR codes also present a great data collection opportunity for restaurants. By using a CTA or asking diners to sign in to a digital platform, restaurants have the unique opportunity to learn more about every person sitting at the table.

Starbucks uses the data it collects via QR codes to offer customers a more personalized experience through the Starbucks mobile app. The recommendations the app gives are based on a number of factors, including each particular store’s inventory, the weather, local favorites and the customer’s previous orders.

COVID-19 changed the game for QR codes


In their 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry report, the National Restaurant Association found that half the full-service restaurants surveyed had added new QR code menus to their service since March of 2020. This was particularly true of family, casual and fine dining restaurants. The link-management service Bitly noted an impressive 75 percent increase in QR code downloads between March of 2020 and August of 2021.

Percentage of restaurant operators who added a QR code-accessible menu since the beginning of the outbreak in March (Source: National Restaurant Association)

It’s unsurprising QR code usage has soared since the pandemic began. A MobileIron survey of consumers in the U.S. and the U.K. in September of 2020 found that over 80% of respondents reported having scanned QR codes. 36.4% of those respondents had done so in the past week, 26% in the past month, and 10% had scanned a QR code that very day.

Restaurants, bars and cafés were the most common locations where the respondents used QR Codes, with 44.3% claiming to have done so in such situations. Interestingly, these were also the places where nearly half the respondents (46%) felt the most secure when scanning QR codes with their personal devices.

Perhaps more importantly, the survey found a generally positive attitude toward the use of QR codes. Nearly 67% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “QR codes make life easier in a touchless world,” and over 58% said they’d like to see broader use of QR codes post-pandemic.

Addressing QR code challenges and hesitancy


A key step in offering QR codes a permanent seat at the table is to address their limitations and some of the negative perceptions about them. 

Different levels of digital comfort: While smartphones are widespread, they’re not everywhere. Fifteen percent of U.S. adults don’t own a smartphone, particularly in the 65-and-over age group. Even those who do own devices with code-scanning capabilities might not know how to use them. For an inclusive dining experience, you might want to keep some physical menus on hand or train your staff on how to sensitively approach such situations. 

Fears of job loss: With QR codes filling in for waitstaff when it comes to supplying menus, taking orders and even payment, it’s understandable that people are afraid of being replaced. Ultimately, a more digitized dining experience gives waiters more opportunities to focus on the hospitality side of their jobs. This should be clearly communicated with the team.

Security concerns: Scanning a QR code and following the link provided comes with a certain level of trust. Customers want to know that the links they’re opening are safe for their devices and that the data they’re entrusting the restaurant with is used responsibly.

QR codes are an opportunity for innovation


The QR code is a tool to get your customer wherever you’d like them to go simply by using their phone cameras. The possibilities of what you can do with QR codes are endless. Establishments that use this surge in digitalization creatively are likely to reap bigger rewards.

One option is to harness the power of video to add a new dimension to your menu. When choosing what to order, customers can learn more about the restaurant, your chefs, how you source your ingredients from local farmer cooperatives, the process behind your famous BBQ sauce and more.

Before wiping the dust off that stack of menus you have stored away, think about the opportunities that digitizing part of your operation can bring. Restaurants that innovated during the pandemic were in a better position to cope with the hardships it brought by finding new ways to continue their operations. They did this by offering new services like curbside pickup or by harnessing the potential that tech solutions like QR codes have to offer. 

It’s hard to tell what the future holds, but if we’ve learned anything from the past year and a half, it’s that innovation and adaptability are key ingredients to future-proofing any operation. QR codes open the door for exciting new ways of dining, which can help restaurants overcome challenges and become more resilient to potential setbacks.

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