‘QR Code Menus Are the Restaurant Industry’s Worst Idea’

An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from an article written by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf: Thinking of my earliest trips to restaurants, in the 1980s, I faintly remember waiters taking my grandfather’s credit card and using a manual flatbed imprinter to make an impression of its raised numbers. My nephew, born early in the coronavirus pandemic, may come of age with similar memories of physical menus as a childhood relic. Recalling them dimly when a dining scene in an old movie jogs his memory, he might ask, “Why did they stop using those?” If that happens, I’ll recount the pestilence that raged as he entered the world; the shutdown of bars and restaurants; the push to reopen in the summer of 2020; the persistent if mistaken belief that high-touch surfaces, like restaurant menus, would be a meaningful vector of infection; the counsel of the CDC that July. “Avoid using or sharing items that are reusable, such as menus,” the federal agency advised (PDF). “Use disposable or digital menus.”

The QR-code menu — which you access by scanning a black-and-white square with your smartphone — has taken off ever since. It may dominate going forward. But I hope not, because I detest those digital menus. Never mind dying peacefully in my sleep; I want to go out while sitting in a restaurant on my 100th birthday, an aperitif in my left hand and a paper menu in my right. And as eager as I’ll be for heaven if I’m lucky enough to stand on its threshold, I want one last downward glance at a paramedic prying the menu from my fist. In that better future, where old-school menus endure, I’ll go to my urn happy that coming generations will still begin meals meeting one another’s eyes across a table instead of staring at a screen. QR-code menus are not really an advance. Even when everything goes just right — when everyone’s phone battery is charged, when the Wi-Fi is strong enough to connect, when the link works — they force a distraction that lingers through dessert and digestifs. “You may just be checking to see what you want your next drink to be,” Jaya Saxena observed in Eater late last year, “but from there it’s easy to start checking texts and emails.” And wasn’t it already too easy?

Friedersdorf cites the 2018 study “Smartphone Use Undermines Enjoyment of Face-to-Face Social Interactions,” where social-psychology researcher Ryan Dwyer and his colleagues randomly assigned some people to keep their phone out when dining with friends and others to put it away. What they found was that groups assigned to use their phones “enjoyed the experience less than groups that did not use their phones, primarily due to the fact that participants with phones were more distracted.”

He also notes the privacy concerns related to QR-code menus. Many of the codes “are actually generated by a different company that collects, uses, and then often shares your personal information, ” the ACLU has warned. “In fact, companies that provide QR codes to restaurants like to brag about all the personal information you are sharing along with that food order: your location, your demographics such as gender and age group, and other information about you and your behavior.”

In closing, Friedersdorf writes: “[…] I hope that, rather than remembering the pandemic as a tipping point in the digitization of restaurants and bars, we instead look back on its aftermath as the moment when an ever more atomized society better understood the high costs of social isolation, felt new urgency to counteract it, and settled on analog mealtime norms as an especially vital place to focus.”

“What if three times every day society was oriented toward replenishing what is growing more absent from the rest of our waking hours: undistracted human interactions unmediated by technology?”