Heavenly Buffaloes, a chain of restaurants with locations in three North Carolina college towns, would seem tailor-made for QR-code menus. Its customers tend to be young and tech-savvy. Most come in hungry, many tipsy. And the menu isn’t exactly complicated.
“It’s chicken wings and beer,” said Bo Sayre, the company’s district manager. “That’s what we do. Not a lot of people are asking, ‘What beer pairs well with this chicken wing?’”
Like other restaurant owners and managers around the country, Mr. Sayre put digitalized menus on all his tables in the early, don’t-touch-anything stage of the pandemic, when contactless service was considered essential. But over time, fewer and fewer diners have paid them any notice.
“If they had a choice, I would say, 90 percent of customers would say: ‘I’d just rather place my order with you.’”
Heavenly Buffaloes may be at the vanguard of a shift in the national experiment with online menus, an invention that not long ago seemed like the way of the future. Today, even though many restaurants still have “scan the code” cards tucked into napkin holders or pasted onto the corners of tables, customers seem to be ignoring them. And many restaurants have returned to using only paper menus.
MustHaveMenus, a menu management and printing platform with about 7,000 customers across the United States, has seen a falling off in the use of the QR codes it provides to restaurants, said Mark Plumlee, the senior content manager. From April 1 to May 16 of this year, the total number of scans has dropped by about 27 percent compared with the same period in 2021.
Fewer restaurants are creating new QR menus, he said. And about 75 percent of their existing QR codes are essentially dormant, with fewer than 90 views in the last year. (Half had fewer than five.)
“It’s not like people delete their QR codes when they’re done using them,” Mr. Plumlee wrote in an email. “They just stop using them.”
The menus are still in heavy use at cafes, beer gardens and casual food businesses where speed in ordering and paying is a priority, said Kristen Hawley, the founder of Expedite, a restaurant technology newsletter.
But for restaurants that deployed them mainly for pandemic hygiene reasons, she said, “it’s gone.”
The motivation for the about-face is simple, restaurateurs said: Diners just hate QR-code menus.
“They are almost universally disliked,” Ms. Hawley said.
One reason is etiquette. Everyone knows it’s rude to take a phone out at a table, but that’s what a digital menu demands. And having to make a special request for a paper menu is awkward. No one wants to be That Guy.
Another drawback to the coded menu is its feel. As the pandemic ebbs, restaurants are trying to coax people to eat out, and the seduction of a dining room is part of the get — dusky candlelight and uninterrupted, eye-to-eye conversation. A QR code can kill the mood: phones up, blue lights on, conviviality off.
“The bottom line is: The QR code is the antithesis to romance,” said Richard Boccato, the owner of Dutch Kills Bar in Long Island City, Queens. “It hinders communication and it hinders intimacy.”
The bar dropped its coded menus in summer 2021, “the moment that it was OK for us to go back to a proper menu,” he said. His main objection to them? “A menu is a window to the soul of the restaurant, and a QR code has no soul.”
It also remains a mystery to many tech-averse diners. “A lot of our customers were like, ‘What is this? I don’t know how to use it,’” said Luly Valls, a third-generation owner of Versailles, the famed Cuban restaurant in Miami. “They’re older. They were like, ‘Give me a paper menu.’”
Waiters often bear the brunt of the frustration. “The server becomes just like an order robot,” said Jill Weber, the founder and chief executive of Sojourn Philly, a restaurant group in Philadelphia.
Some servers said QR menus take the joy out of the job. “There’s something a little bit dehumanizing about it,” said Alec Moran, a server at a high-end Italian restaurant in Chicago, which he asked not be named because he feared jeopardizing his job. Customers, he said, tend to stare at their phones and “pay less regard to you as the human in front of them.”
Mr. Moran said he can no longer rely on visual cues from diners. Guests used to put their menus down when they were ready to order. Now, their phones are still up on the table, still out.
“The world gets more digitized every single day,” Mr. Moran said. “It felt like restaurants were one of the few analog public spaces that we have left.”
Mr. Moran said he thought QR codes also made patrons less inclined to order desserts, another glass of wine or any of “those little extras that you can tack onto the bill.” It’s just a pain to re-scroll, he said.
Michele Baker Benesch, the president of Menu Men, which designs, prints and manufactures menus, said that when her clients switched back to paper menus, “the check, per person, went up. People don’t want to go back on their phones, especially for dessert.”
And customers, she added, may be reluctant to order anything expensive. “It’s very hard to order a $70 steak off a QR code — or a $200 bottle of wine. It just doesn’t feel right.”
Darden Restaurants, which owns the Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse chains, used QR codes at the start of the pandemic. But the restaurants moved back to physical menus in the fall of 2021 “based on guest feedback,” Rich Jeffers, the senior director for communications, wrote in an email.
Benjamin Claeys, the chief executive of Menu Tiger, a global provider of QR-menu software, said the company was aware of the backlash against the menus.
Still, he said, more dynamic QR-code menus that allow a customer to order and pay without waiting for a server are gaining in popularity. In the first quarter of this year, the number of businesses signing up and actively using the service grew 37.6 percent over the last quarter of 2022, he said.
“Our own customer data says QR-code menus are here to stay.”
Digital ordering services can be costly for restaurants. Many services offer a free QR-code menu as part of a broader management package, which can cost as much as $50 to $100 a month. (Paper menus can be costly, too, though prices vary depending on factors like the type of paper and the number of pages.)
Ms. Valls, at Versailles in Miami, adopted QR menus early in the pandemic. But when she reintroduced traditional menus alongside them, customers asked only for paper. So a few months ago, she canceled her QR subscription.
“If we only had QR codes always, it would be a huge savings,” she said. “But we always had to have both, so we still had to spend money on making actual menus.”
But some restaurateurs see advantages to using QR menus, especially when working with language barriers.
Nom Wah, the restaurant group behind the famed dim sum place of the same name in Manhattan’s Chinatown, knows that not all of its patrons, or its servers, speak fluent English. In its Chinatown location, there’s a QR code on the table that links to a menu with pictures, and a paper menu with pencils to check off your order.
“I have a picture menu so that no one asks any questions,” said Barbara Leung, the group’s head of marketing and operations. “It just eliminates room for error or miscommunication.”
In some restaurants, QR codes are moving to the end of the meal.
At Bar Meridian in Brooklyn, diners order off a paper menu. The check comes with a QR code, in case they want to simply pay on their phones and leave.
Even though Sage Geyer, the owner, believes that phones at the dining table are “conversation killers,” he said they can be useful at the end of the meal.
“You may have other plans. You may want to get away from this date. You may want to go home with this date,” he said. “Whatever it is you want to do, convenience is number one.”