An image of a QR code menu, QR codes on menus, QR code menus in an article on QR code menus and whether customers like them.

QR code menus: Do customers love or hate them?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, one trend that soared in popularity was using QR codes on menus. Quick-response (QR) code menus are a technological hack that ensured menus could be delivered to guests with minimal contact and risk of transmitting the virus. 

A 2021 study found 82% of customers aged between 18 and 44 years were willing to use more QR code-based features in the future. Notably, link management service Bitly reported a 750% increase in QR code downloads within 18 months. 

With this sentiment, the trend for QR code menus seemed to be poised for a skyrocketing jump in usage. It was estimated 52% of restaurants had switched to QR code menus during the peak of the pandemic. However, as the public health crisis has lessened, it seems the use of these once-dominant, no-contact digital menus has as well. 

So, where is the restaurant industry in regards to QR code menus and, more importantly, how do consumers view them? I spoke with Robert Byrne, Director of Consumer Industry & Insights at Technomic, to determine why we are seeing a decline in the popularity of QR code menus. 

QR code menus: How do they work? 

Essentially, a QR code is a scannable link that can be picked up by the camera on any smartphone. Once the code is recognised, it will take consumers directly to the linked webpage.

Within the restaurant industry, QR codes can link customers to menus, the establishment’s website, or an online ordering system. QR codes allow restaurants to share their menus without needing any physical materials. Consumers simply scan the code with their phones, and the entire menu is in the palm of their hand. 

The exciting part of QR codes is the ability to link out to an actual ordering site. For instance, food trucks often have a QR code ready for customers to place orders without standing in line. This frees up a normally congested dining experience while giving the customer as much time as they need without feeling rushed. 

There were many creative ways to get customers on board during the pandemic. For instance, many restaurants incentivised customers to use the QR code menus by offering discounts or free drinks. This, plus the general added safety of a contactless service, made them incredibly popular in 2020 and 2021.

An image of a QR code menu at a dine-in restaurant in an article on QR code menus and whether customers like them

What are the benefits of using QR codes on menus?

One of the first major benefits of using QR code menus is the amount of waste that is reduced compared to traditional menus. For instance, restaurants offering seasonal meals will have to update the physical menu several times, resulting in several print runs. Paper menus, even reusable menus, have a lifespan and must be discarded at some point. 

Business owners can edit QR code menus with minimal effort and zero paper waste. Additionally, there is no physical inventory to maintain, saving on cost. A QR code menu is also much more hygienic. Instead of handing customers a menu that has passed through the hands of dozens of people, a digital menu resides in the customer’s phone. 

A QR code menu can reduce the risk of germs and any cross-contamination of bacteria during the ordering process. Furthermore, it saves restaurant owners the time and resources needed to ensure physical menus are presentable and sanitised for each guest. 

An image of a custom-printed takeaway pizza box, customised takeaway packaging in an article on QR code menus and whether customers like them

What do customers think of QR code menus?

While a QR code menu offers several advantages, it appears that consumer sentiment and demand for these digital alternatives are dropping drastically. In a recent article, Food & Wine states many are “tired of having to navigate a website menu to look at a food menu” and that “going to a restaurant should be a time to log off, not log on.” 

It seems the attitude towards QR code menus is shifting. Despite QR codes being a more efficient and sanitary option, many wish to return to traditional menus. “In 2022, Technomic ran a survey asking whether customers preferred QR codes or paper menus at full-service restaurants,” Robert explains. “At that time, 88% of those surveyed preferred paper menus when dining at sit-down restaurants. That number was 89% for 18-24-year-olds, dipping to a low of 81% for the 35-44 group.” 

He adds that this is consistent with most consumer-facing tech, where interest and appeal peaks with Millennials and not with Generation Z. “I have found there is an age-based bell curve for these things.” 

“My takeaway from this is there is a rather limited future for QR code menus in the full-service segment,” he continues. “I understand there are operator costs involved in updating and printing paper menus. However, the advantages of traditional menu engineering and drawing diner attention to specials or specific areas of the menu evaporate in the smartphone environment.”

He believes restaurant owners should put themselves in the position of a diner. “Think about how much you genuinely enjoy scrolling on your phone,” Robert says. “Do you find it easier to identify and recall the specifics of a dish in order to compare to others on a device screen? Why would you invest in ambience or other aspects of a dine-in experience only to encourage guests to pull out their phone first thing?”

Research indicated something is lost on the consumer end when the physical food menu is removed. Having a menu customers can hold, that displays the full range of meals the venue provides, is more efficient than having them scroll through their smartphone. While they are more efficient due to being digital, a QR code menu causes friction when customers choose their meals, and this may be why they are losing popularity. 

“I believe the QR code served a magnificent purpose,” Robert concludes. “However, Technomic Ignite Consumer data shows, in recent quarters, more than 80% of full-service restaurant occasions are dine-in. I believe this underscores the US’ appetite for the more traditional hospitality-rooted experience that full-service dining provides.”

The next time restaurant owners decide on how to present their menu, they must keep in mind not only operational feasibility but consumer ease of access as well.