Before the pandemic, you may have only encountered QR codes (Quick Response codes) when walking by a flyer for a concert or in other forms of marketing and promotions trying to grab your attention. It was that strange, digitized black and white square in the corner that you likely ignored.
Now, QR codes are common across the hospitality industry with many bars, restaurants, and hotels adopting them as a health measure when the sector came back to life after the worldwide lockdowns of Spring 2020. You can find them stuck to terrace dining tables from Barcelona to Brussels, waiting to be scanned.
How is the Hospitality Industry Using QR Codes?
The pandemic has changed the way we work and live no matter which type of job you have. However, the hospitality, travel and tourism industry took a bigger hit than most.
The lockdowns forced most restaurants and bars to close their doors and shift to takeout deliveries or other creative solutions to stay alive. When they could serve customers in person again, they returned to new and constantly changing restrictions, such as limits to capacity, shorter opening hours, and mandatory social distancing.
In addition to the bureaucratic restrictions, it’s become standard to see free hand sanitizer, staff wearing masks, and — of course — QR codes on tables.
In restaurants and bars, these codes are most commonly used to avoid direct physical contact with customers and prevent the spread of Covid-19. When scanned with a mobile device, the QR codes will send patrons to the restaurant’s website, a PDF of the menu, or even to an online ordering and payment platform.
“We currently just use the codes for the menu but I think they have much more potential than that,” says Juan Andres Lattuf, co-founder and head of research & development for Chivuo´s restaurant group in Spain.
Juan Andres Latuff, co-founder of Chivuo’s
What Do Restaurant Owners Think About QR Codes?
While QR codes haven’t totally transformed the restaurant industry, they have made life easier for some restaurant owners.
Juan believes they present a number of business opportunities if used in a clever way that engages the customer.
“Now that the technology is widely accepted and people are used to it, that opens a huge door for us,” he says. “Now, we can get more data and have closer contact with customers so it’s easier to find ways to improve the guest experience in all of our restaurants.”
“With a digital menu, you can experiment more and change things on a daily basis. You can offer promos or run pricing tests on certain items to try to increase our sales; it gives us a better opportunity to upsell,” Juan says.
Chivuo’s restaurants have a reputation for being a place to gather with friends for a delicious burger and craft beer so Juan doesn’t think the QR codes will change much about their service for that brand. However, Juan and his business partners are involved in many other exciting ventures in the F&B industry in Spain.
It’s with these new projects that he believes they will have a real impact on business operations.
“With these new offerings, we want to build an entire 360 experience around the QR code, to really dig into the technology and get the most out of it,” he says. “From ordering to paying to promotion, everything will go through the code.”
Matt Boder, owner of Blacklab Brewhouse in Barcelona
Matt Boder, owner of Blacklab Brewhouse & Kitchen in the Ciutat Vella district of Barcelona, has experimented with QR codes since June 2020 when restaurants were allowed to reopen after the initial wave of the pandemic.
“When we started using them, we actually had a system linked to our website where you could order and pay with your card from the QR code, but now we just have the menu,” he says.
It’s a good idea on paper and could streamline restaurant service but he says the technology and software limitations made it more trouble than it was worth.
“It just wasn’t as efficient and it didn’t work with the system that we use for normal ordering,” Matt says. “If it integrated easily with the system we already have, we’d probably still be using it, but it was just a hassle.”
Even though the ordering experiment didn’t work out, Matt believes that the benefits of QR codes outweigh any potential downsides.
Luckily, for restaurant owners like Matt and Juan that see unrealized business potential with how the codes are currently used, help is on the way. A number of companies are racing to hit the market with apps that can easily integrate with a restaurant’s POS (point-of-sale) system.
The most promising of these seems to be a French-developed app called Sunday.
Founded by the people behind the successful Big Mamma restaurant chain in France, Sunday easily integrates with many common restaurant POS systems and allows customers to view the menu, order, and pay without ever having to make physical contact with a waiter or waitress.
After running a test of the app at Big Mamma restaurant locations, the people behind Sunday found that 80% of customers chose to pay with the QR code. This change cut down wait times significantly and allowed them to serve more customers, leading to more revenue for the restaurant. In addition to saving 15 minutes per table, Sunday´s founders claim restaurants can increase sales per ticket by 10% and tips by more than 40% by using their app.
How Do Restaurant Staff Feel About the Codes?
Anna Ortega, the head of front of house at Federal Cafe in Barcelona’s El Gotic neighborhood, has noticed one small but key impact that the change from physical menus to QR codes has on her and the waiters/waitresses at Federal.
“The codes have absolutely affected the way we work. It’s hard to tell when the customer is ready to order because there is no clear signal. In the past you would know they are ready because they set the menu down on the table,” she says. “Now we are never sure if they’re still looking at the menu or on Instagram, waiting to order.”
Anna explains that their switch to QR codes was a simple one. “We started using the codes because it was the simplest and easiest way to avoid making physical contact with the customers,” she says. “It wasn’t compulsory, but we wanted to do it to be safe.”
“We have some physical menus now because our older customers prefer them, but they’re in plastic now so they are easy to clean,” she added.
A waiter working at Federal Cafe
What Do Customers Think?
Not only must the waitstaff at a restaurant adjust to the new technology, the customers have to adapt as well.
For some people it may only be a minor inconvenient change from the normal way of doing things, but for others it goes against one of the core fundamentals of the guest experience at a restaurant: friendly and personable customer service.
“I find it disheartening when you walk into a restaurant or bar to order something now and the first thing they do is point at QR code on the table then walk away,” says Luke Houghton.
Luke is an industry veteran currently working in back of house cocktail production for Two Schmucks and Fat Schmucks in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood. He’s worked as a bartender for years in the past and he shared his thoughts about what it’s like to be a restaurant or bar patron in the pandemic era.
“It’s very anti-social,“ he says. “The best thing about this industry is the relationship and interaction between the staff and the customers. The QR codes totally take away from that unique experience.”
Customers enjoying a meal at Chivuo’s in Barcelona
Are QR Codes in Hospitality Here to Stay?
They may be inconvenient for staff and off-putting for customers but for restaurant owners, QR codes present many more positives than negatives. It’s likely that we will see QR codes become more integrated into the restaurant experience as third party services and digital payment platforms improve to meet those needs.
This doesn’t mean cyborgs will be serving you meals in the near future. Great, personalized service that can only come with a human touch is still one of the most important things a restaurant can offer.
QR codes may be able to streamline service, cut costs, and allow owners to experiment with the menu but they will never be able to replace a great waiter or waitress who can answer your questions, make recommendations, and resolve any issue you have with a smile.