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It's black and white, QR doubters: The codes are here to stay

Sweet & Sour: The tags deliver benefits that will keep them in use long after the pandemic fades.
Shutterstock | edited by Nico Heins

Sweet & Sour

Nancy says:

Peter, there’s been an awful lot of betting, vetting and sweating recently over which of the COVID-fostered foodservice innovations will survive and which will sink slowly in the post-pandemic twilight.

Just last month, you and I batted around the outlook for virtual kitchens, and I’m sure we’ll see much more opining on related subjects, like the purported disappearance of the QSR dining room and its replacement by enough drive-through lanes to simultaneously feed a football team. Then there’s home-delivery of cocktails and other adult beverages, which threw a lifeline to untold operators during the pandemic and doubtless will be revisited with partisan fervor in many locales.

For my money, though, the most intriguing question is the outlook for the QR code, a bit of a technology laggard that really came into its own in the past couple of years.

You probably know the back story: a Japanese automaker invented the tag in the 1990s as a faster, higher capacity version of widely used UPC barcodes in order to track inventory.

From the broader consumer perspective, however, QR codes had been a nonstarter, languishing on the fringes with their potential unexplored. Until COVID, of course. During the shutdown they became the critical link between operator and customer, replacing conventional menus and offering up-to-the-minute updates on availability, pricing and more.

While the menu and ordering functions understandably have hogged much of the attention, I’ve been more taken with some of their nifty promotional uses, like Sweet Talk from the resourceful marketers at Melting Pot, the fondue specialists.

It’s part of their new Thursdate program, and a quick click on the code provides digital conversation starters for tongue-tied diners struggling to make meaningful connection over a boiling pot of chocolate.

I was also totally smitten with an enterprising operator in Chicago, who added real value to takeout and delivery early in the shutdown with a paper menu that included a QR-coded playlist to accompany each course of the dinner.

And what about Coinbase’s super-buzzy Super-Bowl ad that consisted of nothing but QR codes floating on a black screen? It caused a digital stampede that crashed the crypto-currency concern’s website.

But for sheer creativity, arguably nothing beats the ambitious job seeker who slipped leaflets with a QR-code to his Linked-In page on all the cars parked outside his target place of employment; his creativity favorably impressed the hiring manager, who pronounced him “unignorable” and gave him a job.

It's not surprising that a debate has sprung up over the future of the QR code as restaurants reopen and waitstaff dutifully dole out conventional bills of fare. While supporters laud the little square for its speedy utility, cost effectiveness and inherent sanitation advantages, naysayers point to a further erosion of hospitality, as smart-phone wielding customers retreat further into their technological shells and subvert the concept of hospitality as a human interaction. This isn’t a purely rhetorical debate, since there may be financial implications for the operator. As you’re doubtless aware, when BJ’s Restaurants reverted to physical menus last fall, the casual-dining chain reported that the change boosted average check by 70 cents.

This last makes perfect sense to me, since it offers a high-touch offset to an increasingly high-tech world. A traditional menu is familiar, comfortable and, most importantly, tactile, and it provides respite from digital devices. I suspect patrons are seduced by smart menu copy and lured by its non-digitized, back-to-the future nature.    

This higher-touch phenomenon isn’t restricted to restaurants. The New York Times reported in February that shopping in brick-and-mortar stores actually beat e-commerce expenditures last year; it represented 85% of retail dollars spent, as cabin-fevered consumers stepped away from their computers. In a more recent story, The Times said that 2021 was also a banner year for bookstores, and that physical books represented over 75% of publishers’ sales.  Still another Times article detailed the unexpected return of the rotary-dial phone under the dramatic headline “Landlines Offer a Lifeline.” The trend allows users to get back to the “original, analog” means of communication as a counterbalance to screen fatigue and multitasking.

Similarly, the Washington Post has dedicated articles to the burgeoning popularity of conventional greeting cards, which are getting a second wind thanks to Millennials. They spend more on the old-fangled communications than any other cohort, and WaPo further reports that they especially value handwriting—that’s handwriting as in longhand cursive, Peter--as making a meaningful “human connection.”

So, I’m curious about your views on this. Do you think that QR codes will be relegated to the post-COVID boneyard? Or are they harbingers of a slow but steady digitization of hospitality?

Peter says:

Few topics are as hotly debated by a tableful of dining-out Restaurant Business editors as this one. Except, of course, who gets stuck with the check.

Our pernickety bunch is divided into two very impassioned camps. One group regards the codes as abominations—a clear erosion of the human touch that comes from a server opening a conventional menu and handing it with a warm greeting to the customer. They view the recitation of the day’s specials as a performance that merits its own Oscar category.

But what really annoys them is everyone having to look at their phones, as if they’re all checking to see if a new Wordle round is ready. In their view, a fine meal shouldn’t involve staring at the same screen they’ve used all day to check for overdraft messages or play Candy Crush. To hear their gripes, it’s as gauche as being served a bottle of wine with instructions to take a swig and pass it on. 

Clearly they don’t frequent the same sort of joints I do, where the menu is practically scaled at you with a mumbled greeting that’s as genuine as a flight attendant’s jetway farewell. And their haunts must have a printing press in the kitchen to ensure the bills of fare are always immaculate. I’ve been convinced many a time that the paper listing was lining a bird cage just moments earlier.

Give me the leeway of being able to look at the menu whenever I want to peruse it, instead of having to flag down a server who might swing past the table with every appearance of Haley’s Comet. I can count on what’s listed being actually available—no small advantage during the current supply-chain crisis. And I don’t have to worry about why the pages of a paper menu are stuck together.

Most important of all, it allows me to control the pacing of the meal. I can order what I want when I want it, with my human dependence limited to having a runner lug the grub.

I’ll bet you’ve guessed what camp I’m in. There’s only one reservation I harbor about the codes: There’s the pressure of making sure your phone is charged.

Resistance to QR codes strikes me as pure future shock and resistance to change. It harkens back to predictions in the 1970s and ‘80s that ATMs would never be accepted because a cash-dispensing machine was dumb and too impersonal. The public would supposedly balk at entrusting financial transactions to a glorified cash register.

When was the last time you entrusted a portion of the Kruse fortune to a human, Nancy?

I agree that QR codes are here to stay. It’s just a matter of wearing down the usual resistance to something new and technical.

And if people feel they’d be giving up some of the cachet of dining out, let them crook their pinkies as they look at their phones.

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