The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion QR code menus are the death of civilization

A contactless ordering system at a D.C. restaurant on May 27, 2020. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)
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The coronavirus pandemic saw a number of changes in how we live, in ways big and small. Some were welcome: flexibility about remote work, say, or cocktails to go. But here’s one adaptation that can’t fall by the wayside fast enough: the now-commonplace QR code menus offered in place of the paper version in millions of American restaurants. They are unnecessary, anti-social, discriminatory and unpopular. They fully degrade the experience of dining out.

If you don’t know what a restaurant QR code is, I envy you. It’s the black-and-white square code you find on a placard at the table when you are seated, asking you to scan it with your phone’s camera for a link to the establishment’s offerings. Offered up as a bit of hygiene when restaurants reopened after the shutdowns of the early pandemic period, online QR code menus are unnecessary, since the coronavirus is (we now know) an almost entirely airborne pathogen. But all too many dining establishments continue to use them.

A physical menu sets the stage. It highlights the fact that this is a special occasion, even if it’s simply a quick bite at a local diner. The menu signifies that it’s time to take a break in a busy day, that this meal is something separate from the normal course of events. It also pushes us to interact with others. We share menus. We point to things; we ask the wait staff questions about the meal and what they particularly like. It’s like opening a program at a theater, for a show you and your companions are about to experience together.

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Whipping out a phone to check the menu, on the other hand, is hardly conducive to setting a mood, unless you want to dine in the metaverse. Smartphones are endlessly distracting, and it takes discipline to put them away after checking a menu, a bit of self-control many can’t always muster. (Guilty.) It’s all too easy to rationalize checking just one email, sending just one tweet, taking just one glance at Instagram. (Guilty again.) We already spend almost five hours a day staring at our smartphone screens. Do we really need a prompt to spend even more time in our electronic silos?

In fact, the QR code, like much technological, er, progress of the past decade, is designed to reduce or remove contact with others. Some actually think this makes eating out more enjoyable — or at least cuts down on labor. As one business-to-business site promoting QR codes’ use puts it, “The customer no longer needs to share menus or perform interactions with waiters or waitresses,” adding, “it boosts convenience massively, making dining a more pleasurable experience for everybody.”

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Robert Gebelhoff

counterpointQR code menus are good. No, seriously.

Uh, no. A recent tweet asking “what do we, as a culture, have to do to kill QR code menus” received more than 300,000 likes. And a poll conducted late last year by the National Restaurant Association found two-thirds of all adults preferred paper menus over the online version. Baby boomers in particular revile the use of QR code menus, with 4 out of 5 preferring a physical one. That might be because, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 40 percent of people over the age of 65 still lack a smartphone. So do fully one-quarter of those earning less than $30,000 annually. A QR code menu is tantamount to telling the elderly and poor their business isn’t wanted. Nice!

Robert Gebelhoff: QR code menus are good. No, seriously.

Yes, QR code menus have their defenders. I actually know a few of these benighted souls. Some of them are even my colleagues. They say QR code menus are healthier, and better for the environment. But let’s get real. Germy? If you’re that concerned, ask the restaurant management about paid sick leave policies for the staff, something that’s bound to be much more effective at cutting contagion. And no one who writes for a print newspaper has any business complaining about the waste of paper in printing a menu.

So why do QR code menus persist? They do offer short-term business advantages. By placing the menu online, restaurateurs can not only skip the step of bringing you a menu, but they can also adjust their offerings on the fly. That might be particularly useful at this moment of shortages and inflation, allowing managers to quickly account for supply chain issues and raise prices to cover increased costs.

But that flexibility comes with major downsides for the restaurant patron. Another one: Some industry consultants argue that QR code menus will ultimately allow for greater profits in the form of Uber-like price surging, permitting restaurants to charge more on a busy Friday than on a rainy Tuesday night. “Eventually what you’ll look at is a menu that changes, and eventually, pricing that changes throughout the day,” one restaurant industry veteran helpfully explained to Eater last year.

Is this the future you want? Staring at your phone, ignoring your companions, while your pasta surges to 200 percent of its normal price? I don’t think so. It’s time to end the reign of the QR code menu. This is one technological advance we all could do without.