Dining Out, Digitized

Posted: Jun 20, 2021

Add the analog menu — soggy from wet glasses, or ketchup-stained — to the long list of things the pandemic disrupted.

Although by now there’s scant evidence that germy surfaces aided the transmission of Covid-19, thousands of eateries across the globe responded to the threat by introducing touchless, digital ordering. Diners venturing back into restaurants that have re-opened to full capacity are often finding that some familiar icons of the eating-out experience — leather-bound wine lists, card-stock notices offering daily specials and signature cocktails — are missing. They’ve been replaced by black-and-white QR codes posted on tables and mounted on walls.

Intuitive for many internet-savvy guests, harder to swallow for older patrons, digital menus are changing the experience of eating out. When scanned with a smartphone camera, QR codes direct patrons straight to a restaurant’s website, or the landing page for a digital menu. The technology is not a pandemic invention: QR — short for “quick response” — codes were created in 1994 and caught on first in Asia. Scanning them in the U.S. required a special application, and for decades the grids were “widely seen as unsexy, even a hassle,” as the New York Times’ Lora Kelley wrote. But in 2018, Apple put the QR code scanner right into the camera and using them became more intuitive. Now, a global catastrophe has helped make these patterns ubiquitous.

“For an operator, they never really imagined a world where they didn’t have to print menus. And then you show them that world, and they’re like, ‘I’m not going back,” says Kim Teo, the CEO and co-founder of Mr. Yum, an Australia-based company that develops QR code menus and ordering systems for cafes and restaurants. Launched in 2018, Mr. Yum grew 27-fold in 2020, and closed an $11 million funding round in April 2021. Pre-Covid, just 100 restaurants in Australia used the platform for take-out and in-house ordering; that number has since surged to 1,200 globally, and the company is expanding into restaurants in the United Kingdom and across the U.S.

As the restaurant industry recovers from the pandemic, which forced 10% of the nearly 800,000 U.S. establishments to shutter in 2020, restaurateurs are rethinking longstanding practices in an effort to trim overhead and keep workers and patrons safe. But the printed menu may not go away quietly.

By Sarah Holder
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