Restaurants have many pressing issues to contend with to ensure their survival in the current post-pandemic world. Struggling with inflation, labor shortages, supply chain, and impending recession, some might argue that there isn’t any real incentive for restaurants to focus their attention on menu QR codes.

The implementation of QR codes solved a problem initially—to provide customers with a contactless way of reviewing what’s on the menu. With that “problem” solved, operators can focus on the real issues at hand, or so they may have thought. Static QR codes, while solving for ”something” are generating additional problems for consumers who exhibit strong opinions either for or against them. For restaurants, they’re also a massive, missed opportunity to effectively engage their audience, generate sales and create loyalty. 

QR codes can, and should be, used differently to enhance the customer experience for restaurant diners. With the right approach, the QR code menu can morph into an interactive ordering tool that enhances hospitality rather than hampers it, resulting in increased check averages and happier, more loyal customers. 

A quick look at how these black-and-white squares are currently being used in different sectors of business shows us QR codes can enable consumers to directly connect to brands in a robust way. On the retail shelf for example, there is a strong trend toward using QR codes to offer promotions to shoppers. Pre-pandemic estimates aggregated by Juniper Research show more than 5 billion QR code coupons would be redeemed in 2022—a figure that has only grown as consumers (nearly 50 percent, as of last year) become more and more comfortable scanning marketing-related codes. Furthermore, QR codes are at the forefront of the $40 billion global connected packaging industry, with three quarters of shoppers willing to scan product packaging to gain more detailed information. 

Sarah Ellenbogen is the CEO of Digiphy, a Techstars, M13, and LightShed Ventures backed startup that supports restaurants in amplifying the relevance and effectiveness of QR-based marketing. Digiphy is one company actively helping restaurants solve these problems in order to satisfy their customers, but also to help them capitalize on the full potential that dynamic content can provide for their business. 

“In the restaurant setting, QR code PDF menus often fail to provide a multi-dimensional experience and seem to only showcase a utilitarian one-way PDF menu that is hard to absorb, difficult to navigate and that often leads to frustration and aggravation for the customer, the opposite of a positive hospitality experience,” Ellenbogen says.

During COVID, the PDF menu was a functional solution for providing contactless menus. But many, if not most, restaurants have done away with paper menus altogether, defaulting to the QR code despite the fact this practice often leads to an underwhelming and often maddening user experience for their guests. The main frustration is this: PDFs are not optimized for mobile viewing, forcing users to pinch, zoom, and scroll their way through the document in order to comfortably read it. 

This is bad for the customer, but also really bad for the restaurant as early data has shown that QR code PDF menus lead to lower check averages and less order volume due to the unnecessary friction it creates. For diners over the age of 40, few things can frustrate you faster than having to hold your phone at arm’s length because you can’t read the small print.

The risk of alienating some of your highest spending consumers is too great to overlook. In fact, in 2021 Syntegon indicated nearly 80 percent of consumers shared a willingness to scan a QR code if the experience is easy for them, indicating an imperative to make the QR code experience easier and more engaging for all customers at your establishments. 

Contactless is no longer required; it’s time for diners to engage in a better way. It’s time for restaurants to offer a dynamic ordering experience. By design, PDFs are static, and static content is the enemy of engagement. Once a customer tries to find and then perhaps gets the information they need, there is nothing else for them to do. There is no action or incentive to stay on the page and no opportunity to build a relationship with the menu, the food, or the brand. In other words, a giant wasted opportunity to both satisfy the guest and to upsell.

“QR codes have the potential to offer so much more to restaurants than this. When used strategically, they are a great way for establishments to increase sales, create efficiencies, and drive loyalty. But to get there, restaurants need to prioritize the creation of dynamic content that sells. This is our focus at Digiphy,” Ellenbogen says.

If PDFs are flat and lifeless, then what are the alternatives? The obvious answer may be to direct consumers to a website or ordering platform, but that creates the opposite problem: too much choice. A website generally functions as a type of catch-all for brands. For customers coming from a QR code, this means that there is no clearly defined action to take. If the user must navigate the site on their own to find what they need (or has to intuit what you want them to do), they are unlikely to stay long and are even less likely to order more than what was first shown to them.

Landing pages work better and can feature a single call-to-action that is designed to convert customers to buy, join, give feedback, claim an offer, or complete some other action. A QR code that sends users to a dedicated page with relevant content and a clearly defined action is the key to a positive and engaging user and customer hospitality experience.

Ultimately, what separates a good QR experience from an exceptional one, is context. While landing pages are a strong option for a QR-to-web strategy, their ability to suit a specific occasion or drive a certain action means little if they don’t fit the right moment in the consumer journey, especially at mealtime. So how can restaurants pair content with context in the most effective and scalable way? The answer is simple: create a dedicated experience for each information, ordering and payment touchpoint so that consumers always get the most relevant content possible.

Jimmy Stovall, CEO of Corky’s BBQ, has seen firsthand how contextual marketing via QR strategy has positively impacted his business. “Our new QR code based marketing has helped streamline ordering at our restaurants,” he says. “It’s created a new channel for us to communicate directly with customers and extend promotions. In a few months, we’ve captured thousands of customer emails and changed the way we engage with our customers. QR is now a vital part of our marketing strategy.”

These contextual digital experiences are poised to be the future of QR-driven marketing by challenging the notion that one experience fits all users at all times. Consumers’ needs change over time and in different circumstances, so it is only fitting that restaurants adapt their marketing accordingly. The impact that this type of specialization has for restaurants can be monumental. A contextual QR approach creates a two-way communication channel with customers that drives loyalty through specific, relevant content and opportunities to continue engaging them before, during, and after a restaurant engagement. It also gives an opportunity to test and learn with a much clearer picture of who is scanning the codes, where and at what touchpoint, and how they engage with your brand. 

The result to formulating a new QR focused contextual marketing strategy for the restaurant is a more active and loyal customer base, a streamlined, efficient, and user-friendly experience, and a well-rounded view of omnichannel data. The potential positive implications for the expansion of QR strategy obviously goes way beyond a restaurant merely saving a few cents on menu printing costs and has the capacity to satisfy both the needs and desires of the customer as well as the restaurant. Despite the other issues restaurants face daily, they can’t afford not to take a second look at their QR code strategy. 

Liz Moskow is an F&B industry expert with a Culinary Institute of America pedigree and over two decades of brand, culinary, hospitality and CPG experience. Moskow is considered a global leader, trend spotter, and trend setter in the food industry. She is based in Denver and is Principal of Bread & Circus Ltd, a consultancy focused on the future of food.

Fast Casual, Fast Food, Ordering, Outside Insights, Story, Technology