I think we can all agree that restaurants used to be a hell of a lot more fun when sitting in a dining room filled with other people wasn’t completely toxic. In the time between then and now, I’ve seen the restaurant industry — my home for over twenty years — undergo enormous changes, supercharged by the new realities of Covid-19. Outdoor dining structures began sprouting up everywhere along the curbs of Main Street America. Physical menus were replaced with QR codes that, once scanned, allow guests to access a digital menu online from their smartphones. Amid citywide lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements, restaurants have pivoted so many times they’ve done pirouettes, retooling their businesses to focus on takeout and delivery.
The public has embraced many of these changes — like legalizing sales of to-go cocktails, one of the few broadly popular measures to spring from the desolation of the pandemic. But other developments, chief among them QR code menus, have not been so uniformly well-received. Every day, it seems a new complaint emerges — from industry professionals to opinionated journos to amateur foodies — about how the switch to paperless menus degrades the dining experience. Many of the objections revolve around foundational delusions about unconditional hospitality and an insistence that a customer’s needs should always come first. Never seeing a masked server’s face during an entire meal doesn’t seem to bother anyone all that much, but having to browse a digital menu on their phone is somehow soul-crushing.
I have a message for customers who keep soiling their diapers every time they have to use a QR code menu. Before you go on a diatribe about that one strawman you know who still has a flip phone and can’t access the internet, realize this: Restaurants are suffering right now, and guess what? It’s not all about you anymore.
When the pandemic started, QR code menus were seen as a necessary way to stave off Covid transmission by curtailing physical handling of menus. But now, they’ve become a valuable cost-cutting measure for restaurants battling other viruses: soaring inflation, supply chain issues, rising rents, and labor shortages. While industry veterans like me know that restaurant economics have been flawed for a long time, the pandemic permanently altered the financial calculus of independent restaurants. At the peak of the pandemic, 110,000 restaurants closed, most of them terminally. Lingering job losses in the leisure and hospitality industry are worse than any other sector in the U.S. economy, with employment still 1.38 million jobs below pre-pandemic levels as of last November. Meanwhile, according to a field survey by the National Restaurant Association, 85 percent of restaurant owners report smaller profit margins than before the pandemic.
Digital menus, while not a magic bullet for all the industry’s fiscal woes, at least offer some shred of desperate relief. For one, reducing the use of physical menus cuts down on unnecessary costs. The price of every dish in a restaurant is affected by how much the restaurant spends on paper goods. If printing costs go up (as they have since supply chain issues continue to plague the industry), then menu prices inevitably go up, too. The cost of non-perishable dry goods like cleaning products, to-go containers, and ink cartridges have the same impact on menu prices as food costs do. With so much pressure on margins, every dollar counts.
Aside from cost savings, QR codes menus are also more practical for the people running restaurants. Information can be easily edited on the backend, allowing managers to update menus in real time. No more last-minute scrambles to reprint hundreds of pages because the chef took sea urchin off the menu an hour before the doors opened. Panicked waiters never have to blindside guests with unexpected news of an eighty-sixed item. Digital menus can also be tailored to provide more comprehensive information about food allergies and dietary restrictions, text that might otherwise be omitted to avoid cluttering a printed menu.
Of course, there are valid arguments to be made against QR code menus. They can be difficult to use for some elderly guests, less tech-savvy individuals, or those who don’t own smartphones. Privacy can also be a legitimate concern, as some QR codes are designed to capture valuable customer data while they redirect the user to the restaurant’s website. For patrons who object to QR codes or don’t have the apparatus to access them, restaurants should always have a printed alternative available.
The time has come to reflect on what we as diners demand of hospitality, restaurants, and the people who make them.
But for the rest of the dining public, understanding the impetus for this changing reality is a meaningful way to support a struggling industry through this volatile moment. The best restaurants have always insulated guests from the outside world, offering a brief reprieve from life’s relentless demands. Good hospitality engenders trust — from the legacy steakhouse to the weathered luncheonette — to let you forget, momentarily, the passage of time. These restaurants transport you, through food and atmosphere and a welcoming staff, to a warm and charming place. Or at the very least, to somewhere you don’t have to look at your phone for a few hours. It’s understandable that some people prefer that the cold hand of technology keep its grubby paws out of their dinner plans.
But the time has come to reflect on what we as diners demand of hospitality, restaurants, and the people who make them. The days of management kowtowing to entitled guests who expect special treatment because they spend exorbitant sums, or groveling to aggrieved Yelpers threatening a one-star rating, need to end. Restaurants can’t be everything we want them to be anymore, no matter how much we kick and scream that they should be.
The incongruence between customer expectations and restaurant reality is why I decided to leave the restaurant industry after I was unceremoniously laid off in the middle of the pandemic. When considering whether or not to return to my old restaurant job or apply for others, I realized that I was no longer able — or willing — to make the sacrifices necessary to deliver great service. It had also become clear to me that many guests, drunk on their own privilege, weren’t deserving of the selflessness that administering hospitality required. The way so many customers bristle at QR code menus is a symptom of that privilege.
Before the pandemic, restaurants needed us more than we needed them. But after over two years without being able to comfortably enjoy a simple meal outside of our homes, the reverse may be true. If it is, then we, as guests, should start thinking about how we can start being more hospitable toward our favorite restaurants. Empathy needs to start flowing upstream.
Of course, stubborn customers who don’t agree with me are welcome to go somewhere else. The evergreen threat of taking one’s “hard-earned money” (it’s never earned softly) elsewhere is a classic maneuver of the archetypal douchebag restaurant customer. But the somewhere-elses, especially our most beloved independent ones, are closing in record numbers. There is little room to approach dining out with the same complacency and entitlement as we perhaps once did. Putting up with QR code menus is a minor sacrifice, especially if it can help some of our favorite places stay open one more day. Restaurants need to evolve — their survival depends on it — and it’s about time that guests start evolving with them.
Adam Reiner is the founder and executive editor of The Restaurant Manifesto, where he writes about life in the service industry.