Amid the pandemic, use of QR code technology in U.S. restaurants skyrocketed as the shift toward touchless transactions and payment took center stage. Many tech experts who had been watching more widespread usage overseas over the last decade would argue QR codes were finally getting their much-deserved moment in the U.S. after on-again, off-again (but mostly off-again) popularity.
Industry experts had been wondering for months leading into summer 2021, when prevalent vaccinations were expected to drive a resurgence in on-premises dining, what the fate of all those QR codes would be. But it quickly became clear that QR codes, a somewhat forced adaptation during the pandemic, had enough benefits for both restaurants and customers that they are here to stay. In fact, CNBC recently reported that Bitly, a link management service, has seen a 750 percent increase in QR code downloads during the pandemic.
As a restaurant operator myself, I want QR codes to stick around. They’re saving valuable dollars in labor costs and driving higher checks while making the dine-in and carryout experiences much better for customers. With ongoing supply chain issues, QR codes have been a blessing, allowing restaurants to quickly 86 menu items without reprinting paper menus and saving staff from having that uncomfortable moment where you have to rattle off everything that’s not available. And they also help restaurants gather valuable data on their customers that they have no other way of acquiring.
Customers are on board, too—or at least a strong majority of them are. A June 2021 survey from The Drum and YouGov found that 75 percent of adults say they would be willing to use more QR codes in the future. But that still leaves a quarter of Americans with little to no interest in continuing this pandemic trend. So while the market is ripe for growth, we can’t totally eliminate the old way of doing things, otherwise restaurants risk losing customers.
Who are in that 25 percent of customers that aren’t as excited as the rest of us about QR codes? They’re likely consumers that either aren’t as tech savvy or tech obsessed as so many of us are today. There are also customers who find it uncomfortable and cumbersome to navigate ordering and payments on a device. To them, part of the restaurant experience is ordering from a physical menu. And, of course, we all know that person who always forgets their phone at home or in the car.
So we find ourselves at a crossroads: QR codes are here to stay, but how do we win over more customers and operators? I believe that the technology leveraging QR codes needs to evolve if QR codes are going to be more than just a pandemic fad.
Part of my role at Branded Strategic Hospitality is to keep a close eye on emerging restaurant tech to see who is positioning themselves to change the game. Here are several up-and-coming companies to watch in the QR code space that are doing just that.
Founded in 2017, Bbot makes next-generation ordering tools for restaurants, focusing on online ordering and in-venue ordering. The company works with thousands of restaurants, bars, breweries, food halls, ghost kitchens, and other food and beverage venues and is growing fast. Bbot added over 700 customers and reported 700 percent year-over-year growth from July 2020 to July 2021 and closed a $15-million Series A raise. What differentiates Bbot is that it also helps restaurants create ordering websites and integrate with third-party delivery providers, with the ultimate goal of being “the Stripe of restaurants.”
GoTab recently rolled out a “smart tipping” feature to account for the reality of today’s restaurant experience where it’s likely customers will place some orders via a QR code while placing others with a server. The smart tipping capability allows a restaurant commerce platform to easily recognize how orders are placed and then automatically direct tips for contactless orders into a tip pool and tips for in-person orders to the server(s) who took the order.
Ovation redefined the process of gathering guest feedback by using QR codes that provide a “digital table touch” via a two-question SMS-based survey. What’s more, restaurants can then resolve guest concerns in real-time, allowing them to get more 5-star reviews, discover insights to improve, and drive revenue. Restaurant owners can place Ovation’s QR codes anywhere—including on tables and carryout bags—to give the guest an easy, fast, no-pressure way to share their thoughts.
Michael Schatzberg is co-founder and managing partner of Branded Strategic Hospitality, a New York City-based firm that invests in emerging technology in the restaurant and hospitality industries. Branded’s portfolio includes 27 companies, including Ovation, Chowly, TapRm, PourMyBeer, Minnow, and Bbot. To learn more about Branded, visit www.brandedstrategic.com.