The triumphant return of the QR code
The pandemic is the biggest threat to the restaurant industry that no one saw coming — “an extinction event for America’s restaurants,” as The Atlantic calls it.
Does it even make sense to be talking about restaurant technology right now when every day brings news that’s somehow worse than the day before? Yes, good technology can optimize a restaurant’s operations, even help a business save money, but does that matter when businesses are reopening while side-stepping regulations, or customers are treating restaurant staff poorly, or employees don’t feel safe going to work but are left with no choice? (I'm actually asking.)
Here’s a light story for your Wednesday, featuring the humble QR code (QR stands for Quick Response). I mean, seriously, who thought it would swoop in to save the day? Not me! These codes have always seemed a bit clunky, a bit intrusive as they appeared at the bottom of receipts or next to a register. I certainly never expected to see them gracing tables from high end to fast food around the world... but as we all know, these are unprecedented times.
A 2017 article in Wired covers “The Curious Comeback of the Dreaded QR Code,” explaining that the digital symbols were dreaded because they were clunky and ahead of their time, generally requiring a smartphone, app downloads, and more than a casual understanding of how all of that works. “Before long, scanning codes will feel as natural as thumbing your fingerprint to unlock your phone.” (We all miss the fingerprint scan right about now, right? Right.)
Now, QR codes have come back again, this time to help diners keep physical distance and reduce shared surfaces at restaurants. Noma added QR codes to tables during its burger pop-ups in Copenhagen. The Waffle House is using them in locations across the U.S. In Paris, Nico Alary, co-founder of Holybelly, the much-loved breakfast and lunch restaurants, posted Instagram stories as he cut slips of paper printed with QR codes for servers to pin onto their shirts. This way, guests could easily scan and access the menus in both French and English. Last week, Yelp announced a printable QR code for restaurants that use its Waitlist product, allowing restaurant guests to scan a code to secure their place in a digital queue.
For all the high-tech implications of QR codes, the implementation is fairly low-tech. As one industry expert said to me a couple weeks ago: “I thought that we’d start seeing more restaurants doing digital ordering from your phone, but all they’re doing is posting a QR code that links to a PDF menu.”
While Covid has hastened the speed of some tech adoption — I’d argue that it’s done more for restaurants who had considered building or supporting their own in-house ordering and delivery systems than anything else — there’s no big tech revolution coming to most restaurants right now. Most are rightly preoccupied with the logistics of reopening or expanding operations and running businesses that keep their employees and customers safe. Just as it’s nearly impossible to guess what’s coming in the near-term future, it's hard to know exactly what a business needs to survive in a completely uncertain long-term future. I don’t think technology is going to “save” restaurants, and I don’t think it was ever meant to, but it’s definitely become a differently shaped piece in a totally different puzzle.
What else is happening?
New York-based BentoBox just announced order fulfillment for restaurants using its relatively new direct ordering system. Restaurants can choose who shoulders the delivery fee: the diner, the restaurant, or a combination of both. Tock also recently added flat-rate delivery with DoorDash with the fee covered by the customer, never the restaurant. SevenRooms, Toast, and other restaurant tech companies are adding native ordering and delivery options, too.
Restaurants are writing and sharing reopening playbooks, giving diners an idea of what to expect from businesses in a new era. Two of the best I’ve seen so far: Momofuku’s guide here, and Think Food Group’s here.