Gary Martin: It’s time restaurants took QR codes off the menu

If you plan to eat out this festive season, there is every possibility you will come across one of those postage stamp-sized, mish-mash of little squares and spaces displayed on a placard at your table that masquerades as a menu.

Those QR code menus seemed to first pop up in restaurants during the pandemic when we were encouraged to avoid high-touch surfaces.

With life getting back to normal, some restaurants are hanging on to these relics of the past while others are bringing them to the table for the first time.

If you have already experienced a QR code menu in an eatery around town, you will have discovered there is something stomach-turning about them.

There is no waiter to help explain the menu, offer their views or bring a little colour to the dining experience.

Instead, diners are directed to aim their smartphone cameras at the restaurant’s code and place an online order for food and beverages.

Since they make use of technology and — on the surface — are safer and more efficient, there are those who believe digital menus enhance the dining experience.

Yet digital menus are not an advance — far from it. There is something unappetising about encountering QR codes at the table.

What was meant to be a quick glance at your phone to select the next mocktail can quickly divert your attention to an overflowing inbox, unattended text messages and several news alerts.

And we do not need yet another reason to stare at our screens during dinner.

We already spend far too much time on our phones in social situations when we should be making deeper connections with those in our immediate sight.

Besides, while restaurants keep our hunger at bay their quintessential contribution is to feed our souls.

From the deep connections formed with our immediate dining partners to the cross-table talk shared with fellow patrons to the repartee with staff, eating out nourishes our social lives.

Staring at our screens while seated around a table robs us of that nourishment.

A paper menu pushes us to connect with others. We share the menu. We pore over the menu together, point to things and discuss possible selections.

Digital menus erode the dining experience and promote isolation over socialisation.

Despite our beef with digital menus, restaurateurs continue to abandon the paper-based versions citing their many advantages beyond making germ-averse patrons less anxious.

Not only do they help to address staff shortages but they also allow real-time changes in product availability and market price without the lead time associated with designing and printing new paper-based menus.

While there are obvious advantages to having QR codes at the table, the fact remains that unless we are up for a quick eat-and-run encounter, digital menus will degrade the entire eating-out experience.

They sacrifice connections with those around us, contribute to making ourselves and our dining companions a little lonelier and turn what should be a pleasant experience into a chore.

It must be time to chew over the need to take QR codes off the menu and bring back the paper ones.

So are you happy to scan a QR code to order your meal next time you dine out?

Professor Gary Martin is CEO with the Australian Institute of Management WA.

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