QR codes are finally cool.
The quirky, oft-maligned “quick response” barcodes have found a niche in foodservice spots amid the coronavirus, when social distance is the name of the game and human contact is best kept to a minimum.
Operators are placing the codes at the hostess stand, on table tents or outside the door, allowing guests to scan them with their phones to pull up a menu, order and pay. They’ve become a standard offering from ordering software suppliers.
The process requires little to no contact with a traditional waiter, nor does the guest need to download an app to do it.
“It’s so easy. Literally you just open your camera and you take a picture and it pops up,” said Julie Zucker, CMO of Branded Strategic Hospitality, a multiconcept operator that also invests in technology companies.
Branded implemented QR codes at one of its restaurants, an upscale sports bar in Manhattan called Duke’s, about two years ago. Guests loved it, Zucker said, because it allowed them to easily order drinks or food on busy game days without having to flag down a server or squeeze through a crowd to the bar.
When the pandemic hit and dining rooms were closed, Branded used the QR codes to support curbside takeout at Duke’s and two neighboring concepts. The codes are also in place at outdoor tables where seated guests can scan and order from any of the three restaurants. They’re alerted via text when their order is ready and can pick it up at the bar.
“It was a labor issue for us,” said Michael Schatzberg, founder and managing partner of Branded. “Now a lot of restaurants are embracing QR for this contactless, ‘I don’t want to touch a menu.’”
It’s no surprise that guests have been receptive to the codes. Nearly a third of consumers said disposable or single-use menus would make them feel safe as restaurants reopen, according to FoodService Director sister company Technomic. QR codes take that one step further by putting menus on guests’ phone screens.
“Add to this the fact that there is no need to download anything additional, then you may have a real consumer win,” said Robert Byrne, director of consumer and industry insights for Technomic.
“I think that’s gonna open up an interesting new world of user experience, of diner experience.” —Jennifer Sherman, NMI
For restaurants, the codes can help solve the labor crunch brought on by the pandemic by requiring less waitstaff. They also offer an opportunity to engage more deeply with guests.
“This is the first time that restaurant POS [systems] have really had access to the patron of the restaurant,” said Jennifer Sherman, VP of product for NMI, a payment technology company. “I think that’s gonna open up an interesting new world of user experience, of diner experience.”
That could mean built-in customer satisfaction surveys, loyalty programs or the option to easily split the check, Sherman said.
For Branded, it might be video embedded in the beverage menu of a mixologist making a drink and talking about it. “You can really take this to a lot of fun places,” Schatzberg said.
“While people thought it was cool before … I think now it’s almost becoming a way of dining life.” —Julie Zucker, Branded Strategic Hospitality
In short, the codes offer a number of benefits at a relatively low cost to the restaurant. And yet until recently, they hadn’t found a foothold in the U.S. the way they had in other countries.
In China, for instance, QR codes are a way of life. That’s because big Chinese e-commerce companies such as Tencent and Alibaba built their mobile payment apps around the codes, leading to widespread adoption of cashless payment in the country, according to a 2017 article from Abacus, a division of the South China Morning Post.
“They’re cheap to create, easily spread and all you need is a phone with a camera,” the article said.
In the U.S., the pandemic could accelerate a similar shift toward cashless payment powered by QR technology.
“While people thought it was cool before … I think now it’s almost becoming a way of dining life,” Zucker of Branded said.
However, the codes haven’t necessarily caught on everywhere.
Danielle Baerwald, owner of Erv’s Mug in Oak Creek, Wis., said she has not seen a single customer use one since the casual fine-dining restaurant began offering the option when it reopened its dining room on May 22.
Her customer base skews older, she said, and regular menus are still available—sanitized after each use.
“Some people just look at you kind of weird like you’re talking a foreign language” when they’re given the option to view the menu on their phone, she said.
Her comments were echoed by a couple of other operators who responded to a question about QR codes in Winsight's Coronavirus in the Food and Beverage Industry Facebook group, though most said they’d had a good experience.
At Branded restaurants, Schatzberg is fully embracing the codes. While he said paper menus will be available in the future for guests who ask, QR will be the primary ordering method.
“As a general rule, I think you will sit down, and your phone is the ordering tool for everything,” he said.